A Personal Battle
I have this problem that keeps resurfacing from time to time. This feeling of disappointment with some of the ways my life has turned out. In general I have a very good life, but from time to time I find myself wondering, "what if..?" There are very specific events that can trigger that feeling in me, and one happened just this week. It's nothing earth-shattering. It's really quite trivial, but my reaction, as usual, has been strong. I will explain what it is in a moment, but first I want to talk a little about regret.
A Natural Consequence of Life
Regret is a part of life. No one makes the right decision every time, and often even when we do make the right decision we are still likely to harbor some regret. This is because most decisions involve choosing to do one thing while choosing not to do another. Sometimes that other thing we choose not to do is easy for us to let go, and sometimes it's not. And sometimes we let it go because we think we don't want it, only to find out a few years down the road that we really did. Or at least a part of us wanted it. And there are the times when we want both things, but can only have one.
Every decision, no matter how trivial, falls into one of these categories, and we start choosing very early in our lives. Soccer instead of dance. Piano instead of violin. Technical college instead of art school. Honeymoon in Hawaii instead of Paris. The list goes on and on.
Not every life experience is a cross roads. Sometimes we don't have to choose. But a lot of times we do, and when we do we open the door to the possibility of regret.
A Particular Brand of Regret
We've all heard of the Women's Lib movement, the Mommy Wars, and the desire to "have it all." What is meant by "all", of course, is career and family. Regret plays a big part in all of this. Traditional wisdom said that family is everything. In the past, people married young and threw everything they had into raising their children. Even the men. It was once considered very respectable for a young man to finish high school and immediately go out and get a job so that he could support a wife and, eventually, children. Career dreams existed of course, but they were not granted the kind of importance placed upon them by our society today.
Today, career is everything. We still encourage out children to work hard, but the goal has changed. We don't want our children to go out and get any old job just to pay the bills. We want them to dream big and work toward accomplishing that dream. We want to see them in jobs that they find enjoyable and fulfilling, and not merely stable. We still want to see them happily married and raising families, but the timeline has changed. Marriage is viewed as something that should be entered into by people who are older and more mature. If an eighteen year old girl comes home today and says, "I'm getting married," her parents are probably going to try and talk her out of it. They'll tell her not to throw her life away, that there are so many things she needs to experience before she's tied down with a family. Not all parents will react that way, but many will. In the 1930s, however, marrying at that age would have been viewed as a very normal, and a very good, thing.
No Right Answer
I was old-fashioned. Even before I met my husband I wanted to marry young. I met him when I was sixteen, and within a year I was certain that he was the one. We didn't get married until I was twenty because...well...we had to wait for him to finish college. So I guess what we did was kind of a fusion of the traditional and the modern. We were in a hurry to get married and start our lives together, but we also wanted college and career. If he had taken a job right after high school we could have married as soon as I turned eighteen, but we didn't. And I'm glad we didn't. I'm glad we both have our college years to look back on, and to build careers on.
Though I married young and never looked back, I do understand why so many people say it's better to wait. I have seen couples that married before they were really ready, or who married without taking time to figure out if they were with the right person, and I have seen it end badly. If waiting can prevent that, then waiting can be a good thing. But if two people know they are right for each other, I will never judge their decision to be together. After all, I it's what I did.
Looking Back On What Could Have Been
My reason for writing this post is to illustrate that no matter what we choose, there's going to be regret. I live in a small town where a lot of people still marry at the age that I did. When I venture out of my neighborhood, though, I often get strange looks from people when I tell them I've been married for sixteen years. I often wonder what they're thinking when they look at me that way. I wonder if they're thinking about all of the things I "missed out on" because I never enjoyed the single life.
The truth is I don't care about the single life. I'm glad I wasn't still in the dating world in my twenties. To me, that's a whole lot of stress that I didn't have to deal with. Other people may feel differently, and that's okay, but it's something I don't regret in the slightest. I do think about career sometimes, though. I wonder where my professional life would be today if I had made different choices early on. But the reality is that early marriage did not rob me of those things. The things I look at today and think I may have wanted back then were things I wasn't thinking about back then. It's impossible to choose something if you don't know you want it.
Thinking about dance is particularly troublesome in this regard. I'm thirty-six years old and I've just started taking ballet. My time of dreaming about being a professional dancer is gone. It can be a bit depressing when you realize you're getting started with something at the age when many people retire from it. I'm determined to learn as much as I possibly can, and to milk every ounce of enjoyment out of it that I possibly can, but still I have days when I look at my life as a dancer and wonder, "what if..?"
Other Artistic Pursuits
The first time I got all depressed about the direction my career was taking was when I was still in college. It was my junior year. I was majoring in Music Education, and then one day I suddenly realized I wanted to be an actress. Um...well...yeah...there was some regret there. I had chosen a music degree over a theatre degree. Determined not to let it get me down, I started auditioning for plays. I was in two productions that year, then I went to three auditions in a row and did not get a part, and my fear of rejection started to get the better of me. I stopped auditioning. I didn't think about it again until seven years later. This time the catalyst was a job loss which plunged me into an intense identity crisis. Desperate for a new creative outlet, I started auditioning again. This time things went really well for me. I was in several plays in a row, and even had the lead role in a couple of them. But then life moved on again and theatre moved to the back burner.
This love of acting is something that keeps coming back again and again, and every time it does I get depressed. It's interesting to see the kinds of things that trigger it. For example, my husband thinks it's odd that I never want to watch behind the scenes featurettes or gag reels from our favorite movies and TV shows, but I just can't. As long as I'm looking at the screen and seeing fictional characters, I can enjoy what I'm watching, but the moment I let my self glimpse the actors behind the characters, I start to get all worked up. Those actors become real people to me all of a sudden, when they weren't real to me before, and I find myself thinking about their lives and their careers and the decisions they made that got them there. I start envisioning myself living that same lifestyle and I have to deal with the fact that I made other choices. I know it's never too late to try, but my life is full of so many other things--things that I did choose--that there's not really room for a serious pursuit of a brand new career. Yeah, there's some regret that I did not become an actress, but there would also be a whole lot of regret if I left everything that I have now and chased that dream.
The Inspiration for a Book
I'm very happy to be seriously pursuing writing now. It's empowering because I can sit down and do it anytime I want to. I also know that it truly never is too late to become a writer. It's not like dance where I'm always reminded that my body won't do certain things because it wasn't trained to do them when I was a child. It's not like acting where age has to be matched to the character and many of the good roles are for twenty-somethings. I can write until I'm eighty and no one will know the difference.
My actress angst played a big part in my debut book, Amelia's Children. I threw all of that frustration into Sarah's character, and that is why the book begins with her returning home after a failed acting career. But my writing is inspired by more than just my own life.
I recently tweeted the question, "Can I refer to the male actor who is inspiring my main character as my muse?" I know that the word "muse" is supposed to refer to a woman, and that the male counterpart is called an Agent of Fortune. But when I'm watching a favorite movie or television show in the hope that it will put me in the mood to write, it sounds much nicer to say, "I'm spending some time with my muse." "Agent of Fortune" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
I have based the physical description of the main character in my current work in progress on one specific actor. Who is he? I'm not going to tell you because, first of all, it's embarrassing, and second, I want you to read the book when I'm finished and you'll enjoy it much more if you can imagine him looking the way you want him to look. But in my mind he looks exactly like this particular actor.
In order to get inspiration for his character, I've searched for this actor on Youtube and watched a few clips here and there. I thought I would be okay doing this because I've been careful not to watch any interviews or gag reels or anything else about the actor himself. I've only allowed myself to see him in character, in an effort to avoid sending myself down that dark path that I know is looming before me. However, the other day I stumbled upon a very old clip. He must have been in his early teens when it was filmed, and there I went down the rabbit hole of professional regret. My mind was immediately flooded with thoughts of an imaginary life in which I had landed a role on television at such an early age. When I realized what was happening, I instantly turned off the computer and walked away, but it was too late. The seeds were already sown.
The Utter Futility of it All
In reminding myself that every choice carries the danger of regret, I am teaching myself to be content with my life as it is now. I am teaching myself to be happy with the choices I made when I was younger, even if occasionally I look back and wonder if I could have done anything differently. The truth is I was not ready for the spotlight when I was teenager. I was ready for marriage and family. That may seem backwards to some people, but it's the truth. A career as an actor or a dancer or a singer or any number of other things I sometimes wish I could have been requires a lot of self confidence. These are things I didn't have much of back then. I could carry a tune, but would not have had the stage presence that is required of the average pop star. I could memorize lines, but would not have been able to come completely out of myself when stepping into a character. So for me, it was marriage and kids first. Those were the challenges I was ready to tackle at the time. And really, thirty-six is not that old. There's still plenty of time to try all those other things now that I am older and more sure of myself.
This has been a very personal post, an I know I've touched on a couple of subjects that have been hotly debated over the years. I hope that in conveying the choices that I have made I did not imply any judgment against people who did it differently. There is no cookie-cutter lifestyle that fits everyone, and I chose what was right for me at the time. Everyone else has figure it out for themselves.
Thank you for reading my lengthy and somewhat rambling rant. Remember to follow me on Twitter for updates on this blog and other tidbits about where I'm going next in my professional life.