I am a negative person. I have perhaps always been a negative person. The reasons are inconsequential, but that’s never stopped me from exploring them before. My parents are both negative people. That’s a large generalization, and the more accurate way to say it might be that they are cautious people. They are wary of vulnerability and they are wary of excitement. For example, this weekend I told my parents about my son’s increasing vocabulary. My mother’s immediate response was that my peace and quiet was gone forever, and that I’ll wish he’d never started talking. Now, I don’t think this is an incredibly irrational response, in fact, I think it’s an incredibly predictable response. My mother, too, has been taught by her parents, in one way or another, to be cautious, and so her excitement comes out masked in sarcasm. My response to this is sarcastic in vein as well, since it’s the language of my youth and to a large degree the language of my family. To abandon this language, without warning, would be difficult for me and for my parents.
The truth is that I long to abandon this language of caution, I long to hear unequivocal excitement and praise from my parents. I desperately want them to get excited about something without apology or regret. I want them to reflect on the mistakes that they drag around behind them like a sack of broken toys, without purpose other than the reminder of the time when they did it wrong. This sack of useless memories only serves to hold them back, to weight them down and keep them from getting carried away in their excitement. I want them to get carried away, though it would frighten and disturb me. I want them to love who they are and what they do. I want this for my parents because I want it for myself.
I too carry with me a sack of leaden memories, mistakes and regrets that I sit with in the evenings and roll over in my hands, reliving my regret with a melancholy relish that is nothing if not my emotional calling card, the energy by which I have defined and delimited my identity for as long as I have had an identity to define. My regrets are in a large way my most important memories since they are the memories of the things that were most precious to me. I learned not to pursue these things. I am naturally risk averse and I had no one to teach me how to handle the disappointment of trying and failing, so like most people I did away with trying where I might fail and stuck to doing what I was good at. But achievement without risk is empty of satisfaction. So the things that I have reacted to most strongly in life, women, jobs, opportunities, ideas, inextricably bound up in the miasma of regret from not pursuing them. That miasma has grown and grown and now I am left with a castle of sadness as my legacy, built stone by stone from a life time of regrets.
The fact is that I am as guilty as my parents of responding to excitement with negativity. I am not comfortable being excited, I do not know how to handle it, so I want it to be over as quickly as possible and the easiest way to do that is to kill it. There are different ways to kill excitement, I know because I’ve been doing it for a long time. There is the direct way, which is to directly negate the existence of the excitement by saying that it’s based purely on fiction. There is the rational way, which is advising not to put all your eggs in one basket, we’ll see what happens, don’t get too excited now. There is the faux excitement and then break it down little by little until there’s nothing left of the original excitement. It’s sad, really to know how long I’ve practiced these techniques, how long I’ve lived my life cautiously, free of fear, full of regret.
My caution is nothing if not defense against disappointment. Caution preaches the idea that we ought not get too excited about any one thing since things can change unexpectedly at any given moment leaving us disappointed. The irony is that practice of caution is the direct opposite of what it preaches: that we DO know what’s going to happen, it’s going to be negative and I’m going to be disappointed if I get excited, caught up or involved. I believe that I have husbanded this kind of caution for as long as I’ve lived, and that the cultivation of this energy leads only to more caution, because I am unwilling to risk the disappointment of exploring other possibilities. To a great degree I am learning that I get what I expect and if I expect that excitement leads to disappointment, it always will.
I know that the reality behind being excited can be just as narrow minded. I know that when I get excited about something I can focus on that possibility to the exclusion of all others. What I am learning is the third road, the place where I am excited by the infinite number of possibilities, where I no longer see an unexpected change as a setback, and no longer see setbacks as proof that creating intention about something exciting is useless and not worthwhile. Where the road to my goal is uncharted and I am able to purge myself of cautious expectations and say yes to unexpected possibilities without thinking of them detours. To make the most of what’s dropped in my path whether I consider it successful or not. I am much more comfortable failing than I am recontextualizing the disappointment of expectation into a new opportunity. I am much happier rehashing what I could have done better than I am deciding what I can do best with what I’ve got now. I am more comfortable in the certainty of the past than I am in the uncertainty of the present, which means that I am always existing in regret and always trying to catch up to myself.
I don’t know how to proceed from here, but how doesn’t matter. The only how that matters is to, as Jonathan Larson often reminds me, “forget regret or life is yours to miss.” It is a lesson I long to learn, to understand and to practice. I have not forgotten my regret, I carry it close to my heart, the treasure of things I stood near and almost did, which is the closest I’ve been to truly living. That is a sad thing to say, and perhaps in saying it I continue the cycle of caution and regret. I don’t know how to cut away the strings that are keeping me bound, but I will find a way, and I will find a way soon.