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Essay for New Years

Often in youth, advice is followed with the phrase “when you’re older and wiser” as a cushion or explanation for why you don’t understand something right now. So, I waited, and waited, until at 26 I realized it will not happen to me. I’ll never have all the answers. I still don’t know what the hell is going on, especially this year.

2021 has been a learning experience for me, and I imagine many others out there. Whereas when I was a little younger, a fresh graduate and green to work and the world, an ironclad certainty governed my life. I thought I had wisdom then. Funny! 2014-18 Jake always thought that the world would work like a simple machine. All I had to do was X to achieve Y. And then, as an older man, I would be certain I had met the right person and certain it was time to have children of my own and certain that my career was in the right place and certain that….

How wrong could I be? While still maintaining my belief in the power of choice, I glimpsed the world in all its parts and the full scope of just how insignificant existence was. It feels like the lights of a freight train shining you square in the eye, the conclusion of your mortality, your finiteness, the fragility of your existence. How one tiny thing could go wrong, one text on the road, a virus, a fall down the steps and it would be the end of life as you knew it. Out of your control, the world spins on with random acts of kindness and violence and care and recklessness. Yin and Yang, floating in and out of balance while we try to make it to work on time in the morning without spilling our coffee.

It’s our nature to sweat the little things, the wrongs done to us years ago or yesterday in equal measure. Pettiness and rivalry are in our DNA, ambition leading the way like a drunken captain of the ship, at the helm turning into the typhoon without regard for feelings like joy and gratitude hold on for dear life, locked in the brig, all praying the ship doesn’t overturn. How do we see the big picture? Even during an ongoing 2 year pandemic?

Time away from home provided some perspective. I traveled to work this year all the way to Texas. Time spent in the south for two weeks at a time gave me insight into some of the little things in my life I was missing, grinding away, and finding definition only in work, on my own. I missed my family dearly. Especially our dinners together and the loud dogs, my mother laughing with my dad and me as we watched NBA or NFL. I missed margaritas with my aunt and uncle and talking shop with my cousin. I missed hearing my grandparents share stories and perspectives. I missed weekend benders with my friends, and the stories we’d tell over and over of our exploits at Tequila Cowboy. I missed my fleet back home and the laughs we share in the data van.

How fortunate I was to experience all these things. What a cosmic lottery I had the fortune to win. Looking in the mirror, can you say you deserve these things? The intangibles that give life meaning seem to come to us with no rhyme or reason, just existence.

I know the importance of money and my life wouldn’t be the same without it, and I’m grateful. But it can’t buy you more time with your tribe. Of all the things we own in life, time is the most important.

With perspective, I see the simple If X than Y machine of life in its full light. A good life isn’t governed by simple actions you take, it’s determined by how you take them and who you help along the way.

I think it goes like this: If I do X with integrity and honesty, with a helping of joy and gratitude, and a lot of luck in the limited time I have, I might have Y one day. Y might not be tomorrow, or next year, or the next 10. If you aren’t careful, you might achieve Y and not even know it and continue to search. Y could be at the very end when you reflect and say, “I did it right.” Maybe that is wisdom. The knowledge of how to spend your time.

One of my favorite quotes I read this year goes: “Only by living at the edge of death can you understand the indescribable joy of life.” I’m looking forward to trying to understand the indescribable joy to the best of my ability this next year. Perhaps that happens when you’re older and wiser.

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