The Non-linear Life

Somehow or another I ended up thinking today about whether or not I’m doing anything worthwhile with my life. Maybe it’s because as part of the Dave Winer School of Management curriculum, I watched Any Given Sunday a week ago, and it’s really been knocking around my head. It has this unspoken, deep sentimentality about life and the decisions people make about their lives that has driven me to distraction all week. Life is a game of inches, you see. And all those little decisions add up to something.

Lately I’ve been plagued by this fear that the choices I’m making right now are turning me into someone I don’t want to be — that life constantly shapes you, deliberately and by accident, and the shape I’m taking is, well — that the shape I’m taking encourages some of my worst qualities while muting some of better instincts. Here or there I’ve been a real jerk, but at the end of the day it’s something larger than that. I can feel myself growing, breaking bonds — but it’s not always pretty. In fact, sometimes it’s downright grotesque.

Are the decisions I’m making about my life the right ones?

I suppose it’s useful to ask that question, but at the end of the day I guess I feel it’s irrelevant. I remember back to fifth grade. I went to Boy Scout Camp, Goshen Scout Camp in Virginia. But I was a kid, still a cub scout, and I didn’t have a Boy Scout Troop to go with, so I went “provo” or provisional. Provisional was how all the kids who didn’t have troops went. Mostly it meant that they were such miserable trouble-makers their scoutmasters refused to let them come to camp with the rest of the troop — too much trouble.

Here I am, a little kid, a 5th grader, raised outside the United States, thrust into a pack with a bunch of much older kids. It was terrifying. Ever kind of shock imaginable, all the good terrible things boys do to each other. Builds character, right?

But there was this one counselor — Biff was his name. I don’t remember his last name. He seemed ancient to me then, but of course he must have been 16 or 17 at the time. He was this strong, straightforward leader. He had integrity and passion — but wasn’t blind to the reality of things. We kind of dismissed him at first as one of those goody-too-shoes — but gradually we figured out he was good, but he was also tough and serious and strong. Not a man easily dismissed.

Well, my experience of him was all of six or seven days — but he had this tremendous influence on my life. I had very few direct interactions with him, but watching him manage the disputes and miseries of provo life at scout camp taught me all kinds of little lessons. It was the right time in my life, too — about to enter adolescence, for the first time in my life making decisions on my own, the very beginning of starting to figure who I was and how I was going to live.

So here he is, one of the most important people in my development as an adult, and I don’t even know his last name. He’s unlikely to remember me at all. Our experience together was astonishingly brief. But those few minutes during that week have stayed with me for the last eighteen years with such resiliency I remain astonished.

How can you know? How can you know about the decisions in your life? Did Biff have any idea his decisions that one week were going to have such an intense effect on my life? He has no idea. Biff has no idea about the power of his actions; if he looks back on his life, he might see it wasted — because he can’t know about some of the lives he’s touched.

Are the decisions I’m making about my life the right ones?

Beats me. I might never know. I suppose you just do your best, you set your compass and you go. You try to be honest and true and it’s all just a crap shoot at the end of the day; you hope it comes out alright, and you barrel right along, taking it one inch at a time. It’s not linear, it’s not clear, there is no a + b = c. You just jump off the cliff and there you go.

2 Responses to “The Non-linear Life”

  1. Anne Says:

    This post was very helpful to me. I’m sick today so my capacity to articulate why is not with me.

    Of course, I’m the fictional Biff in your story, the one who looks back on his life and sees it wasted. I think you and I have had this conversation before, about the little effects that are big, and that one can never know.

    And so: we are not, we are not, we are not allowed to judge ourselves. Let alone others.

    Yet, we do see how our lives are becoming what we set out, or allowed them, to become. So from the inquiring mind, rather than the judging one, we can feel poignant, and curious. And inspired to adjust.

    Some of the mystery here: though life is not linear, we have no choice but to live it that way.

  2. not this time Says:

    your last paragraph is a cop out. face the reality: you’re scared shitless, you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing, and complete and total destructive failure is around the corner.

    now shut the fuck up and deal.

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