On the Problem of "Missing Out"
We believe who we were could understand who we are.
Kieran Setiya, in Chapter 3 of his book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, examines our regret at "missing out." When we get older, we pine for a younger self who could have chosen differently. A self who would lead an entirely different life. I can attest that I wonder about taking music too lightly. If I hadn't, would I better appreciate what I'm trying to appreciate now: the incredible skill, thought, and yes, metamorphosis inherent to self-expression?
To be sure, you can detect an implicit circularity in this conception of "missing out." It does feel like we're imposing our current values upon an imagined past self. We believe who we were could understand who we are. That's a false proposition, but it doesn't mean the circularity is worthless. I asked my students in their last exercise for my class to address themselves in high school. What did they need to know then? I wanted them to focus on what they could process recently which was formerly inconceivable.
Setiya posits a related concern. Why exactly do we imagine being "carefree" at seventeen, putting ourselves in a "time before we had to commit ourselves and... confront our losses?" In part, it is because because we are "overlook[ing] the major disadvantage of not knowing what you will not do: not knowing what you will." (1) Setiya and I are engaging the same larger theme. How exactly do we learn to value what we value? The answer isn't as simple as "experience teaches," because that entails using experience in the first place.
As an aside, I should illustrate that last thought. Some people never learn from experience. They may be excessively bound to tradition or, as I've seen in my life, only relate things they encounter to one specific moment in their lives. There's no openness, there's no growth, even if they sound wise and thoughtful at times. Without pointing at anyone, I can say this is emblematic of a bad model of wisdom: the model of a guru on a mountain. Wisdom from on high, unearned.
Why we value what we value is an immensely personal question. But it has some aspects we can discuss without personal details. (You might say those aspects are theoretical.) Setiya cites Megan Daum approvingly in order to illustrate what a mess being seventeen was. He's concerned with our appetite for nostalgia clouding our vision of what we can do in middle age. For me, the passage he quotes speaks to a phenomenon prior to a notion of value you can articulate. You need to feel like you've done something: maybe exercised control over a situation or have an accomplishment you can believe in. Without further ado, here are Daum's words:
Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. (2)
Daum speaks of how "nothing has started yet" in our younger years. "[T]he present is merely a planning phase." As a teacher, this is one of the most difficult impressions to navigate. For example, I'm always telling my students that what they do in groups matters. They want it to work the same way I do when I watch a YouTube video telling me how to easily beat a video game boss or memorize a list of bacteria for a test. Or how it works when you read a few essays, reflect deeply on them, and produce a beautiful one of your own. They desperately want a result, not just be told that they need certain experiences which they must piece together and make sense of later. I don't quite know how to convey to them that working with different people and adjusting your expectations is the value. What we ask for in middle school and high school and in many work environments is simply to have expectations in the first place. But a real job—at this moment, this excludes the White House, which is currently fine with the proposition of "not paying bills" in order to feel bipartisan—requires genuine flexibility. Not caving in to the destruction of solidarity, but learning who shares your goals, working with them, and expanding your circle as you can.
Moreover, Daum mentions "loneliness" in those younger years. That's really interesting to hear: we've talked about accomplishment, value, and growth, but what does that have to do with friends, family, and relationships? Weirdly enough—and maybe this is a good place to stop this meditation—we've circled back to the Aristotlean idea that friendship can be based on virtue. The truth is that our younger selves accomplished a lot but couldn't see what they did. This is because you grow into your values. You have to grow to have the values, and the process is messy and non-linear. You can't dictate the values exactly from the start because it will be empty rhetoric. But if you don't have any sense of value to begin with, you can't grow.
(1) Kieran Setiya, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. 73.
(2) Ibid, 74.