In one of my all-time favorite essays, cartoonist Tim Kreider names and examines The Referendum: the “phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.”
Drawing on personal experience, Kreider explores in precise, poignant prose the cross-cutting tensions (internal and otherwise) and melancholy that comes with trying to figure out if the grass on the other side really is greener, and if so how much. A few money quotes:
“Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.”
“Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.”
“Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.”
It’s a fantastic piece and well-worth saving and coming back to periodically. This is especially true for most of the people reading this blog, as I think that The Referendum tends to come well-before midlife among educated big-coastal-city types by dint of constant exposure to diverse lifestyles and opportunities.