Cartoonist Tim Kreider writes over at the New York Times about something he calls “the Referendum,” in which people in their early middle age (think 40 to 45) look at the lives of all their friends and try to figure out how their own lives match up to theirs. This is basically indistinguishable to what everybody does all the time — 20somethings look at their lives relative to their other friends too, I assure you, or at least did when I was that age — but Kreider’s thesis (or at least what I got out of it) was that at about 40 years of age, this comparison is more pertinent and poignant, because by that time you’ve already made all sorts of life choices that will define the rest of your life, and in some ways it’s just too late to go back and start over.
Essentially, at 40 or so, you’ve become who you are going to be for the rest of your life. Which means that, when you look at your friends’ choices, you do so with some measure of romanticism and envy, because those choices will no longer ever be yours. The only positive note about any of this (or so says Kreider) is that your friends likely look at your life through rose-colored glasses as well. Basicially, at 40, everyone’s over-romanticizing the life of their contemporaries.
It’s an interesting thesis, and in some ways dovetails into something I’ve thought for a while, which is that one’s 20th high school and college reunions are really the only ones that one needs to attend, because they’re the ones that let you see who all your classmates became when they grew up. At the reunions before the 20th, people are still figuring out what they’re doing with their lives; the ones afterward you show up just to find out who’s still breathing. But basically while one always has to leave room for epiphanies, freak-outs and karma, I do think when you see someone at 40, they are who they who they have become and will likely be for the remainder of their time on the planet. I could be wrong on this; ask me again when I’m 50. But it seems that way to me now.
I don’t know how much I agree about the rest of “The Referendum,” however. Or more accurately I think that I agree that “The Referendum” functions, but only to the extent one is unhappy with one’s own choices in life, or sees the choices one’s made in terms of what one’s lost in other opportunities. I suspect people who are satisfied with the choices they’ve made with their lives (rather than being resigned to them) look at things differently — they look at the lives their friends have and see the value of them and the cool things those lives offer, but wouldn’t trade because their own lives have enough value for them.
For example, this graph, in which Kreider, single and without children, discussing his friends with children (and, also, homes):
But I can only imagine the paralytic terror that must seize my friends with families as they lie awake calculating mortgage payments and college funds and realize that they are locked into their present lives for farther into the future than the mind’s eye can see. Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.
This is a fairly depressing way of looking at life with children and mortgages, and so quite naturally if this is how you’re doing it, you’ll be romanticizing the lives of your friends without either. But it’s not impossible to look at college funds and mortgage payments as part of a long-term process that results in a) responsible, productive adults you’ve had a hand in creating and b) a place you own and stake a claim to, both of which are in their way laudable and worth the time and commitment. Now, maybe neither of these things are monumental, in terms of asking “what have I done with my life,” but it doesn’t mean that either is not desirable or worth doing. Not every desirable or good thing in one’s life is or should be monumental.
I think the real thing that bothers me about Kreider’s “Referendum” is that it seems to deny both agency and optimism, the latter not in the “hey! It’s a sunshiny day!” sense but in the “work as if these were the early days of a better nation” sense. Our lives are a combination of the choices we make, for better or for worse, and events that are largely out of our control, which we then have to deal with. It’s also a continuing process, to which we have to commit every morning when we wake up. I think Kreider’s “Referendum” is a tapping into the desire to escape one’s life rather than to commit to it. And, I don’t know. I think that’s not a way to go through life, if you can avoid it.
Now, you may say, it’s easy for me to have this perspective because in many ways I have an enviable life. Which is true, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise. But, you know, Tim Kreider and most of his pals undoubtedly have enviable lives, too; as one interviewer put it to Kreider, “You draw at home and you hang out with friends and drink and stuff, and then, at the end of the week, you produce a cartoon? And that’s your job… Please allow me to congratulate you on having the best life of all time.” To be very clear about it, anondyne musing about one’s position in life relative to one’s chums is the sport of the privileged, like polo or key parties. The issue in this case isn’t privilege, it’s perspective. It’s one of those enviable problems to have.
Or to put it another way, if you’re really spending time fantasizing about your friends’ lives, and they are equally spending time fantasizing about yours, there’s a good chance both of your lives are, you know, pretty good, and maybe you should focus on that instead. It’s just a thought.