As I was getting gas for my car Sunday evening, a big church bus pulled into the parking lot. A few dozen noisy students from a Baptist church in Texas spilled out and headed inside for junk food to eat on the road.
I could have been one of those students not too many years ago. In high school, I was very involved in the youth group of my Baptist church in Jasper, Ala. We traveled in the summers through Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina. In my last year with the group — while I was a freshman in college — we traveled to Oklahoma City.
As I watched those students tonight, I saw a young man and young woman standing apart from the rest. They appeared to be a couple — and they reminded me of the night on a church bus when I nervously asked a young woman if she was wiling to date me.
I have to smile at how little I understood at that time, about love or life. Even though the young woman agreed that night to date me — and we were together for three years — I know now that neither of us had the knowledge or wisdom to know what we were doing.
And the worst thing about a human life is that we almost never have the wisdom or knowledge we need — until it’s too late to really use it.
I’ve told you a little bit before about that relationship with Gail. We were on the way back from Oklahoma City — somewhere south of Little Rock in Arkansas, if I remember correctly — when I finally worked up the courage to ask her what I’d been wanting to ask for the last couple of months.
Since she said yes, I was ecstatic. It felt like a perfect fantasy that night. All seemed right with the world.
I haven’t spoken to Gail since my junior year of college, but I don’t have anything bad to say about her. I just know that she seemed perfect on that night when I nervously asked her to date me — and I know now that we were completely wrong for one another.
I didn’t know who I really was. I’m not sure I understood how to really draw out who someone else was, either. I knew the basics of how to treat a woman decently, but I didn’t have any idea how to love someone properly.
I don’t mean to imply that I treated her badly. I simply didn’t have the maturity or understanding of human needs to properly love anybody, even myself.
I’ve heard before that making good decisions comes from experience — and that experience comes from having made bad decisions. That might be slightly cynical, but there’s some truth to it.
There are no dress rehearsals in life. Every time we face something for the first time, we’re less prepared than we believe we are. Sometimes we get lucky and handle things well. Often, though, we stumble and make terrible decisions — things we later regret.
I doubt there’s any human who hasn’t found himself wishing at some point that he had known in the past — when he had to make a decision — what he knows today. I could point to many decisions I’ve made in the past and tell you what I should have done — and I could explain why I didn’t know what I needed to know at the time.
Everything I thought was important that night when I asked Gail to date me is pretty trivial to me today. Many of my values and priorities — and much of my understanding, of myself and of the world — have all changed, sometimes in radical ways. The things which I now believe to be of paramount importance weren’t even on my radar that night.
I don’t see any way that this can be any different for us. I’m not upset with my 18-year-old self for my ignorance and lack of wisdom. It simply breaks my heart that it isn’t possible to somehow absorb the lessons of life — the ones that come with years and with mistakes — and then live our lives again in wiser ways.
Of course, when I was 18, I didn’t think I needed more knowledge or wisdom. I had everything figured out. By the time I was 30, I was a seasoned veteran of life and was even more perfect in my understanding of the world. Or so I thought.
It probably wasn’t until about the time I turned 40 that I started giving up my arrogance, at least a little. Since then, it’s been a long journey of self-discovery and reinterpretation of the world. The more I’ve learned, the less certain I am about what I believe — and the more I realize just how vast my ignorance remains. And will always remain.
There are some cultures in which people believe this earthly plane of existence is simply where souls go to live many physical lives — and each life is an opportunity to learn some new thing. Although I see no evidence for that, I wish it were true.
I wish the day could come when I died and then moved on to another life — as another person in another place — and I could take along the hard lessons I’ve learned in this life. I like to think I would make better choices if I could do that. I like to think I could love better — and that I could be kinder to myself and others from the beginning.
There are still a lot of things I haven’t yet figured out, but I have been able to understand the importance of love. I understand how to love in ways that I never could when I was much younger. I understand how to be empathetic and to take care of those I love in ways that would have seemed foreign to me when I was young.
The tragedy is that I made big mistakes while I was gaining the experience which brought this wisdom. I wasn’t always as loving and kind as I wish I had been. I’ve learned these lessons, but I made mistakes which unintentionally hurt people along the way. I hate it that others had to pay a price at times for my ignorance and lack of experience.
My only hope is that I can live my life — and love in ways that matter — well enough from here on out that the pain of the past will somehow be redeemed by the wisdom I’ve gained.
Note: The photo above was taken on a church trip to North Carolina just after my senior year of high school. It was shot by someone else in the youth group and she shared this photo and some others from the trip with me a few years ago.