People often say that life is short, but they’re usually wrong. Life (for most people) is pretty long, but in order to be able to do what we want, we need at least 2 out of energy, free time, and money. Having them at the same time is rare, especially once you reach a certain age, where these things seem to be in short supply for a lot of us.
I keep hearing about friends and acquaintances whose marriages are having problems. A common theme seems to be one partner wishing that they could still live the way they did when they were single. Is it really about being single, or is it about wanting to be young again? Having responsibilities is difficult. When you've got a family, it can often feel like your life is governed by outside forces, and that you don’t get to make choices for yourself.
There’s an exchange in the film Diner:
"I keep thinking I'm going to be missing out on things."
"Well, that's what marriage is all about”
I think it isn’t just marriage, but life in general. Even when you do get to make choices, you’ll always be missing out on something. No matter what you choose to do, there's always something else going on that might seem more exciting.
If you go to see a band, you may have missed the gig of the century at a different venue just down the road (although you probably didn’t).
If you leave a boring party, it may have just got going a few minutes later. On the other hand, if you stay, it might not have improved, and you might have missed out on getting a good night’s sleep and being awake enough to experience something wonderful the next day.
Parents miss out on going out, sleeping in, and having choices. People who don't have children miss out on the joy of experiencing unbridled affection and enthusiasm. Mind you, they don’t get those bundles of enthusiasm jumping on them first thing in the morning, or flying off the handle about the colour of a plate.
There’s a question that you see asked in interviews sometimes - “when and where were you happiest?” Obviously there are big events like my wedding and the birth of my daughter, but beyond them, there is a moment that sticks in my mind vividly.
I was alone in Prague, walking across a bridge in the sunshine, and realising that I could go anywhere I wanted. I was 21, and I had no responsibilities, no plans for the next month, with an InterRail ticket in my pocket, and total freedom to explore a whole continent. My life was ahead of me, full of possibilities and choices. It was exhilarating. If I’d been worried about missing out on things, I’d have been paralysed at that moment. With a whole continent of choices, there were a million things I was about to miss out on. But there isn’t any
I can see why people have mid-life crises. Parenthood forces you to confront the decisions you've made about your life. You’ve committed yourself to living with a certain partner, and the life that you had when you made that choice has evolved in ways you may not have expected. You’ve probably reached a point in your career where the job makes demands on your time and energy. The sense of possibility, that I felt so intensely on that bridge in Prague, is very limited.
You may well feel trapped in the life that you’ve chosen. So it’s understandable that people sometimes wish that they could recreate a point in their life when they felt free, but for most people, you can never go back. You aren’t 21 any more, and you don’t have the energy to go out all night. You don’t look cool (if you ever did), and being single again won’t mean that you suddenly enter some glamorous world of love affairs and international jetsetting.
One point about missing out on things is that very often the moments you’re most glad to have experienced aren’t the ones you were anticipating. You didn’t know they were coming, and you couldn’t have planned for them. Often they’re the moments you would have chosen to avoid. So don’t worry too much about missing out - you can't second guess everything. Having said that, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done.