Can We Do it All Over Again? (And would we want to?)

Walking in my Former Shoes

For many years, I forgot about baby teeth. It is kind of a strange thing that these vital body parts fall out eventually and are replaced by our permanent choppers. We don’t shed our entire fingernails, eyelashes, or earlobes and get replacement models when we start to grow up. Body parts tend to grow along with us. But when my older daughter many years ago started to get her first loose tooth, I was suddenly reminded of the phenomenon of tooth replacement and of the impending visit of the Tooth Fairy. This would be one of many examples of ways that I, as a parent, got to experience something all over again.

One of the joys of parenting is that we get to relive many things through our kids. We get to experience once again Christmas, Disneyland, ice cream, and trips to the zoo through the eyes of a child. What makes this particularly cool is that kids are constantly changing, so their experiences of these various stages and events changes with them. My kids first experienced Disneyland through rides like Dumbo and the Merry-Go-Round. Later – much to my relief and delight – they stepped up to the Matterhorn and Space Mountain. Life at that age is a steady stream of new discoveries, discoveries that for many of us adults had gotten old a long time ago.

Some of us parents can take the whole living vicariously thing too far. We may want our kids to play the same sports, go to the same colleges, and wind up in the same careers as we did. Even more intense (and sometimes twisted) are those parents who want their kids to accomplish the things that they never did, clinging to a dream that they could never bring themselves to give up. Rather than being obsessed with my kids’ achievements, I tend to live vicariously in the opposite direction, trying to protect my kids from the bad experiences I once had. Given how many issues we parents often have, it’s amazing that any kids grow up to be relatively normal.

My kids have simultaneously reached one of the great transitions of life: graduation from high school. While my older daughter recently graduated in the traditional way, our 16-year-old beat her to it by passing a high school equivalency exam a few weeks ago. My younger daughter now gets to spend the rest of her life reminding her older sister that she graduated from high school first. She now has the luxury of starting community college two years earlier than normal and doing some exploration in order to rediscover hopefully her love of learning and to figure out what her passion may be. My older daughter has figured out a plan for pursuing her passions, but understandably, she is feeling the stress that comes along with moving into the next stage of her life.

I have plenty of memories of being an 18-year-old wrapping up high school and getting ready to venture off to college. But the older I get and the more distant the memories, the harder it is to remember what it felt like to be that person I used to be. What was it like to be staring off into an unknown future, not knowing if I would someday get married, have kids, be in an enjoyable career, own a house, travel the world, or even live to see 30, 40, or 50? It was a time in life of striving to get somewhere while not knowing exactly where it was that I wanted to be.

We middle aged people sometimes reminisce about our younger years when we could eat whatever the hell we wanted, play sports without getting injured, and didn’t have to worry about real world adult problems. The funny thing is that I have an increasingly vague memory of being far more stressed out in my early 20s than I am now in my early 50s. My twenty something self, after all, had not gotten anywhere yet. My fifty something self, on the other hand, does not feel as much of a need to be striving to get somewhere. In many ways, I have already arrived at a destination, and I now have the luxury of learning to enjoy it. It’s no wonder that so many old people seem happier than young people. While there is a lot of truth to the saying that “youth is wasted on the young,” I can’t really blame young people for having a difficult time enjoying their youth. Staring off into the unknown can be far more stressful than sitting back and enjoying the fruits of your labor.

I sometimes wonder what I would do if I could be magically turned into an 18-year-old again. I imagine that any person like me who has more days behind him than in front of him would be tempted to take this offer. In the end, however, I think that I would only take this offer with a couple of conditions. First, I would need to take back with me whatever wisdom I have accumulated during my half-century on earth. I do not, after all, want to once again be as stupid as I used to be. I would also want some guarantee that the best things that have happened to me over the past 30 years would happen once again. My once again teenage self could then relax a little bit in the knowledge that things would turn out all right. Maybe then I would feel empowered to take a few more risks and not be so hung up on things that don’t really matter all that much. Of course, if I was turned into an 18-year-old with the knowledge and wisdom of a 50-year-old, would I really be getting the chance to be an 18-year-old again?

One of the biggest struggles of being a student and teacher of history is finding ways to make the material relevant. A good way to start is to try and bring the stuff to life, to ask yourself and your students to put themselves in the shoes of people living in the past. The trouble is that this is extremely difficult to do. Do I have any concept of what it was like to experience the world through the eyes of someone living centuries ago? Hell, I can hardly remember what it was like to experience the world through the eyes of my former self. Hopefully, this knowledge that we can never fully walk in someone else’s shoes can lead us humans to be more humble in our interactions with others, particularly those in a different phase of life than ours. Just as we have either forgotten or forgiven ourselves for the actions of our former selves, we can learn to cut other people some slack too.

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