Earlier this week, I was listening to Pandora while brushing my teeth before bed because I have impeccable hygiene. “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper came on, which got me thinking about driving around, listening to that song on the radio when it first came out (think I was about 18 or so). Then that reminded me of how stupid I was at 18. In my defense, it’s hard not to be stupid when you’re 18, so part of it was just inevitable. When I talk to other people about being dumb at that age, their tales often include drinking, DUIs, drugs, and being generally irresponsible and disrespectful. I never did any of that because my parents, and to a greater extent, their friends, lived in that world. They were a bunch of teenagers that never grew up. So when I became a teenager and wanted to rebel, I did crazy things like cut my hair shoulder-length and become a vegetarian. Woo! No meat and no split ends! Suck it, world!
So, yeah, I wasn’t stupid in that sense, but I was still stupid. I disagreed with just about every decision my parents made in their daily lives (partially because they were bad decisions and partially because I was an angst-ridden teenager). I was biding my time and drinking my Kool-Aid until the second I turned 18 and could move out of the house. My only goals were to get away from my parents and not be them. I thought that distance would solve all my problems. I was resentful and wanted to run away. I couldn’t admit to myself that, as a dumb teenager, my life wouldn’t improve if I didn’t know how to make better choices.
As an adult looking back on things, I know that my parents did the best with what they had, which includes their decision-making abilities at that point in time. I also know that most teenagers feel that their parents know nothing and they know everything. It was a bit different in my case because my parents really were making bad decisions, but as a teenager, I was in no place to make better ones. I eventually realized that anything wrong with my life was my fault, which meant that I could take responsibility for it, and therefore, change it. Once I learned that, I had to settle in for the hard work of fixing myself and my life. I’m still working on fixing myself, but my life is pretty good.
The hardest lesson that I’ve ever had to learn, though, is that even if you figure out things for yourself, you cannot force anyone –no matter how right you are, no matter how wrong that person is, no matter how much you love that person — to change. Just as importantly, I try not to judge people too harshly for their bad decisions. I’ll shake my head and vent to friends about how I don’t understand why so-and-so thought this or that was a good idea, but ultimately I just empathize, sympathize, and avoid people whose decisions I routinely find hurtful. Nobody sets out to actively make a bad decision. We stand in the moment with our thoughts, experiences, and emotions, and at that moment, we decide. There are no take-backs or decision-erasers. Some of us learn to pay attention to the consequences of our actions sooner than others. I’m lucky that I learned these lessons in my mid-20s.