It’s Never Too Late

by Joyce

I’m in my mid-twenties, and I worry every day that I’m not making as much of my life as I should be.

Never mind that I’m doing really well by all reasonable standards. How come I’m not the CEO of a multi-million dollar startup? Why haven’t I founded an international charity? All by the age of 25. What did I do wrong? Where did I waste my time?

It took me a while to figure out that my feelings weren’t uncommon among achievement-oriented young people. To paraphrase an astute article that I unfortunately can’t locate anymore, kids used to compare themselves with Johnny down the street as a way to measure their progress. Well nowadays with the internet, the proverbial street has expanded to include every child genius and and twenty-something Silicon Valley billionaire in the country. The average self-esteem is simply not equipped to handle the onslaught.

The truth is, unless you’re a statistical anomaly, you won’t experience the extraordinary ducks-all-in-a-row synchronicity required to succeed so wildly at such a young age. Most of us experience setbacks that we have to overcome — ill health, emotional immaturity, an image-oriented approach to achievement, just to name a few of mine. Whenever I’m tempted to resent the lemons I’ve been handed, I remind myself of two things that I’ve learned about life:

  1. There’s no point in feeling sorry for myself. Even when it’s justifiable, it’s never productive.
  2. No one is perfect. I’m going to make mistakes — lots and lots of them — so it’s a better investment of my time to learn how to recover than to try for perfection, which is impossible anyway.

Neither of these were easy to internalize. It took several years of conscious effort to turn myself from a victimized, perfectionist wreck into a halfway self-sufficient human being. I’m not exaggerating on the years part. I was that horrible, yeah.

But once I started making positive changes, it completely changed my life outlook. I realized that at any stage, no matter how far gone I was, I could turn things around.

My least favorite part of The Fountainhead so far is in Part IV of the book: Peter Keating, defeated and miserable, takes up his childhood passion of painting. He shows Roark six of his canvases, and Roark shakes his head and tells him it’s too late. Peter is only 39.

For this, I wish I could bean Ayn Rand over the head. She was so perceptive in so many ways, but here I think she’s dead wrong. In The Fountainhead, all the characters either have it or they don’t. Nobody good ever errs; nobody bad ever improves. It’s a terribly brittle world, and it’s terribly unrealistic.

In reality, the human spirit is such a resilient thing. People of all ages have turned their lives around and embraced a vibrant, creative life. For real life stories, just read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

Probably the most inspiring book I’ve ever read in my life about the human spirit is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about his experiences and observations of people in the Nazi concentration camps. This passage is often quoted, and with good reason:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

I feel like if I had to choose a short passage to summarize the entire book (a grand task, mind you), these would be as close as I could get. They makes you realize how ridiculous it is to feel like you’re done; you’ve had all your opportunities; your life has been wasted. If you’re still breathing and cognitively aware, you can continue to live and change and grow.

When I mentioned Ayn Rand’s fatalism to my husband, he chuckled and reminded me that in Les Miserables, Valjean was in prison until he was 40. Talk about a wasted youth! If classic fiction has anything to teach us, it’s that it’s never too late to start living.