Two people have told me in as many days that they wish they had made more of their youth. They wish they had not squandered opportunities that came their way to finish this course, or take up that hobby. Telling them that squandering opportunities is what young people do didn’t seem to help. I wish that I’d taken up rowing more seriously when I was at Cambridge. I very nearly did, but it was fear that stopped me. Fear of jumping into the unknown, fear of stepping into a milieu populated by those who’d rowed at school and who all spoke with posher accents than my flat-vowelled Cumbrian voice. Cowardice, ambivalence, fear of being ridiculed.
We are too hard on ourselves. We have reasons for doing, or not doing, what we do, or don’t do. Our choices may reflect disordered thoughts, faulty logic, or fear, but they are nevertheless entirely understandable given our circumstances and the forces that have shaped us.
Not long ago I was the invited speaker at a medical school reunion: people I’d taught when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, barely ten years older than them. At the time of the reunion, they were in their mid-40s and well-established in their careers, on astronomical salaries, living in gaffs with tennis courts and swimming pools. It’s always the ‘successful’ ones that go to reunions. Can’t think why. I started my speech by commiserating with them that they were just about to find that they were at a difficult time of life: all has gone well so far, in the main, but trouble will soon start as kids hit adolescence, as relationships start to creak and as confidence begins to wane. Oh, how confidence wanes.
I was at a job interview recently at which someone asked me how I would describe myself. That rather took the wind out of my sails. (Interviews, by the way, get much harder as one ages. You would think the opposite would be the case, but not for me.) It’s difficult to answer because I need so many qualifying clauses and verbal explanatory brackets, and a few seconds were all I had. A fatuous question, of course, but interviewers are full of fatuous questions. Anyway, the question set me thinking.
The first thing I remember wanting to be, and howling at the top of the stairs because I wasn’t, was a boy singing on the TV. Then I ‘wanted’ to be a doctor—but that was to please my parents, especially my mother. Then I wanted to be a cathedral organist. That lasted a long time—indeed, it’s still there inside me: in my darker moments I’m still a failed cathedral organist. Next, I wanted to go to Cambridge (managed that one, God only knows how, since my A level results were spectacularly mediocre: an E in biology, I ask you). I’m conscious that I never lived up to parental expectations: they saw me as a wealthy GP living in a big house on Beacon Edge in Penrith, or as a medical consultant with rooms in, say, Portland Square, Carlisle. All I managed was a second rate academic with a poky office in Nottingham medical school. I certainly was a teacher, and a good one too in the sense that I provoked people to think. Since I taught them, I moved on to a good job in Dublin by charming the selection panel, and then managed to write two textbooks, neither of which sells terribly well, for they are too gloriously idiosyncratic to appeal to those responsible for recommending them to students. And now I am a clerk in holy orders in the Irish midlands.
Some people look at this story and say: ‘he likes getting qualifications, he must have an inferiority complex’. Others say: ‘he likes dressing up and lording it over others’, and hint at some dark secret. Some think ‘he’s restless and can’t settle at anything.’ Yet others say ‘he’s a dilettante’ (not a compliment). Well, all I can say is: guilty as charged on all counts (except for the dark secret, of course, depending on what you call dark). My life has been rich, and it ain’t over yet.
At the interview, I mumbled something about other people seeing me as gifted, but that I didn’t see it that way, for I am just me. I have all these fears and insecurities, and lots more. I am just me, like all humans, wonderfully and deeply flawed. At the risk of sounding complacent, I’ve stopped worrying about lost opportunities, and now wish only to make the best of what comes my way. Perhaps that’s the product of being 62 rather than 42. I’ve stopped worrying about my ‘kids’ as much as I used to: when I was their age, I managed without parents worrying about me, because they were both dead.
It’s Holy Week. One of the risks of being churchy in Holy Week (and there are many) is that we will feel, or be made to feel, guilty about the fact that we betray like Judas, we deny like Peter, we squirm like Pilate, we are cruel like Herod, we are economical with the actualité like Pharisees, we sometimes follow the mob. In other words, we are human. I have a Judas, a Peter, a Pilate, a Herod, a Pharisee, a mob, living inside me. They are part of me. I hear the passion stories no longer as guilt-inducing because I’m not perfect, but as comforting (that is strength giving) because I will never be perfect and I can stop trying. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to stop being human. If I say hello to all the different parts of me—the Judas, the Peter, the Pilate, the Herod, the Pharisee, the mob—and give them a hug and look them in the face, then divine light can love the hell out of them, out of me, and out of you if you do likewise. There is nothing to fear, and everything to gain.
Whatever happens, there is something bigger than me, and you, and we are not in control. Despite this the world keeps on turning and the sun keeps on shining. A happy Holy Week to you all.