Kierkegaard Kierkegaard Kierkegaard Kierkegaard Søren Kierkegaard once observed that we begin life by only looking forward, and end by looking back to understand it. The existentialists leave me cold with their nihilism and I find their approaches hard to digest, but I consider Kierkegaard’s comment very much an accurate description of life’s dynamic.
I can remember how my early thoughts were very much about what my future was going to look like. In my mind, all my presents were events that I would have to get through to get to the really important stuff. I knew we had to put up with living with the people we found ourselves tied to by the happenstance of birth. We had to follow the rules we learned from those around us to traverse this period, but our secret focus was on the future, on that time when we would be able to organize our world in a way it would better serve us.
Yes, we had to do what we were told. Yes, we sometimes formed attachments because it was expected, and even convenient. Yes, there were programmed behaviours that had to be followed faithfully. But we knew, didn’t we, that the real stuff would begin when we were in a position to be fully in charge. It sounds bloody-minded now, but those were really my thoughts. All I was living through at the time was just the price of admission, wasn’t it?
And the school years. Were we really going to need all this knowledge we were cramming? Everybody knew that this material was ancient history and that the real world was going to make it all irrelevant. Were any of the teachers people we could respect? I was cleaning out the shelves of the library with the books I was reading. That’s where my education came from, from the stories of real lives that people were leading, that people had led. I was finding my heroes there, and imagining the wonders I would realize when I finally broke free. Until then, I knew to play the game, do the work, pass the exams, collect the admission cards I was going to need. There was the brightly shining future ahead of me. I would accomplish wonders!
Then, there I was. Off on my own. Now I would remake the world. But I was a father, supporting a family. And the “membership cards” I had earned were the only things I had that were going to help pay the bills. I could see then that the stories I told myself and that I read in the library were just fairy tales – the parent who slogged away at work for many years to support us was the model I was going to have to follow. And the parent who took care of my creature comforts was the one who taught me I was valuable and that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. And the family members I took for granted were the only ones in the world who took me at face value, no questions asked.
Could I measure up to the hero I believed I was? Could I leave a mark, or marks, that would have the kind of impact I had always assumed I would realize in my life’s work? I am now looking back and trying to understand. I am looking back to appreciate what I have come to believe are the things that have value, and which may have escaped me when I was so focused on looking forward into the glare of a bright future.
I am evaluating what I offered, what I left for the generation I helped usher into the world. When they were able to free themselves from the burden of my stewardship, did they come away with anything that proved useful to them for their lives? I hope so. It was something I didn’t appreciate enough in my growing up.
I am evaluating what I offered, what I left to others, as I was serving to glorify my own image to myself. Am I satisfied that, while I was seeking to realize the potential I believed I had, some of the things I accomplished also helped others? I hope so. That was at the heart of the fairy tales I dreamed for myself when I fantasized about the future all those years ago.
What I now appreciate is how radically the looking-forward person I was has been altered by the living experience. The inexplicable arrogance and self-indulgence of the creature who was cast forward into the world is revealed and, looking back, he has learned to eat and relish humble pie.
Hopefully, we learn how much of what we earn for ourselves in life flows from the generosity of others, in the form of love, attention, time and materials. Hopefully, we learn that, if we are to be happy, we in turn have to be willing to share what we have to offer. Hopefully, we become eager to share, if only to taste the psychic rewards such actions yield.
Nowadays, I spend my time looking back, trying to understand my life more fully. Am I that much different from you?
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.