If I were to ask you which 20 years in the life of the modern middle class American are the most critical and defining, your answer – assuming you’re smart – would be the years between ages 20 and 40. That’s when most of the big life-altering decisions get made – education, religion, marriage, career, children – and when the course for the next 40 or 50 years gets set. At 33 I’m now over half way through this stage, and so I have made some of those big decisions and still have a few more to make. The same holds true for most of the people with whom I spend most of my time.
As I’ve gone through this stage I’ve noticed in myself and others the ugly tendency to criticize the decisions other people have made. You know what I’m talking about. “I can’t believe how quickly they had kids. I mean, that’s their choice, but it just seems like you would want some time alone with your spouse first.” Or, “I can’t believe how long it’s taking them to have kids. I mean, that’s their choice, but it just seems like you’d want to have them while you still have the energy to raise and enjoy them.” This list goes on and on: Our friends and family members are too focused/not focused enough on their careers. They live too close to/too far from their families. They’re too frugal/too lose with their money. They take too many/not enough risks. They’re too active/not active enough in the church. And on and on.
So where do I find this golden measuring stick of absolute truth and wisdom for determining whether someone else’s decisions are too much this or too little that? My own decisions! They’re just right! I have a master’s degree, so to get an undergraduate degree or less is to recklessly put one’s family at risk of poverty. However, I should point out that a Ph.D. is basically overkill. Who are you trying to impress, Ph.Ds?
I got married at 31. Anyone who got married before they were 30 blew it, because they missed out on a decade of fun and friends and travel and education. But anyone who waits too long after that is a damaged, perverted weirdo who is going to end up alone. I moved away from the place where I grew up, but I want to go back some day. Anyone who never left is a yokel, and anyone who doesn’t ever want to go back is a snob. My decisions are the equivalent of the baby bear’s porridge: not too hot, not too cold, just right.
The one decision of mine that I don’t use as the gold standard for judging the decisions of others.
Now, I don’t want to give you the idea that I sit in constant judgment of my nearest and dearest, because I don’t. But do these kinds of thoughts cross my mind? Yes. Do those thoughts sometimes make their way into conversations with others? Yes. Do I think I’m the only one who has this problem? No. And let me tell you this: If you have less than ten of these thoughts a year, you’re trying too hard to be good. But if you have more than 15 a year, then you’re being too judgmental.
As I’ve thought about this unseemly tendency, I’ve often asked myself, “Why can’t everyone just do things exactly like I do? Everyone is so stupid.” Kidding. I ask myself, “Why do I care that people choose different things than I have?” I mean, 95% of these decisions have absolutely no impact on my life. Why do I care if Jon wants to work 100 hours a week as a banker, and Jim wants to work 10 hours a week as a park ranger? What’s the difference to me?
An essay I came across a little while ago answers the above questions with great insight and humor. While I recommend you read the whole thing, I’m going to paste the portion that directly answers the question of why we seem to care so much about the decisions that other people make even though they have little or no impact on us. The author claims the answer lies in “The Referendum,” which he defines as, “A 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. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated.”
I mean, that’s what’s really driving us to judge and criticize the decisions that our peers have made, right? You and I are walking down a road together, and we come to a fork. I zig, and to my great surprise you zag. Had you zigged with me then I could have gone on thinking that zigging is the only option that a reasonable person would take. But you zagged, and I’m now faced with the possibility that zagging was possibly a better option than zigging. I don’t want to have to worry that I made the wrong decision, so I’m going to have to prove to myself that your zigging was a bad move. So that’s what I do. If left unchecked, this kind of thinking can lead to something even uglier: hoping other people fail so you can have proof that they should have zigged with you.
I think I’m maybe making myself sound like a pretty terrible person. I’m really not. For example, I one day hope to open an orphanage in Africa where the children can learn a trade. Like diamond mining. Still, I fall prey to the temptation of justifying my decisions at the expense of other people’s every once in a while, and I’ve decided don’t want to any more. I’m going to dedicate one hour a week to kicking this habit. Less would be negligent, and more would be excessive.