The Referendum

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.

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17 Responses to The Referendum

  1. Norm says:

    I’ve never been the inaugural post. I’m kinda nervous especially since I don’t know what to say I just wanted to be the first to say it but I found your insights illuminating, Dave, especially since both of us sort of zagged while most of my friends zigged.

    I think the older we get the less judgmental we get because life never turns out perfectly the way you planned it and looking back you realize that we all just did the best we could and you can’t ask for more than that.

    Good post.

  2. Eliza says:

    Very interesting and very true. Are we sure this isn’t ry? ; )
    So sad that we all do this, because I know i have been accused of this, and i definitely have felt others do it to me, you’re so right, why do we care? Why can’t we all just accept were in this together and were all different so obviously there is no set way. Although that is when bringing morality into it gets tricky, not that it should make a difference in how you treat and love people, but that there really kind of is one set way. (totally not saying I do that one set way, just saying its hard not to pull out the measuring stick, because there really is a measuring stick, do you know what I mean?) Anyway, great post, very insightful.

    btw, I guffawed at the diamond mine thing, not that orphans working in a mine is funny, but that ya know, that you would go into that irreverent territory.

  3. jill says:

    great post. i loved ‘the referendum’ article too. zig-zaggin.

  4. Troy says:

    D you’re not the only one that thinks that way so don’t be so hard on yourself. I had this friend that moved away to a large metropolis to fill the empty hole in his life. By the time I had 3 beautiful children and a career, he was just getting married and was unemployed. A lot of good that fancy shmancy degree from an Ivy League school did him. Now I think he works for a Sattellite TV company. Maybe doing sales or installs or something. It’s just sad. Oh, and he has a dog because he hates kids.

  5. Katie Sherman says:

    Very Dr. Philosophical post! Really enjoyed your thoughts. We must all remember Christian’s missionary plaque..I mean how could we forget it! I totally agree with Norm and I think the older I get the less I worry about what others think (unless I have stinky breath or something)! My life adage is “I care how others feel but not what they think”! We have done some major zagging and I am better for it!

  6. Ben Pratt says:

    I needed this today. Thanks, Davis.

  7. Landon says:

    Interesting. I kind of feel dumb about my career choice. out of like 10 high school friends like 5 zigged before i made the decision to zig. I love zigging but feel like others that zigged think i did cause they did. Oh well.

  8. Braden says:

    LOL Katie. Great post, Dave. Very insightful way of putting this.

  9. Davis says:

    Norm, do you mean because we got married later, or because we didn’t go to law school? I think getting older should make us less judgmental. I’m not always sure it works out like that.

    Eliza, I’m guessing by “set way” you mean the Gospel? If so, then yes, you’re right, but I think that’s a pretty bare bones set way and doesn’t have an opinion on a lot of the stuff I’m talking about (in my opinion, at least).

    Jill, keep on zig-zaggin.

    Troy, that actually sounds like someone I think it would be ok to judge.

    Katie, that made me laugh really hard. Christian was so far ahead of the rest of us with that plaque, wasn’t he?

    Braden/Ben, thanks/you’re welcome.

    Landon, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I can imagine a conversation where people think you zigged because some of your friends did. And that is a stupid conversation to have. 1. It’s impossible to know why someone else does something, and 2. even if it were true, who cares? What impact or effect on their lives does it have? Finally, I find it interesting that you zigged in light of the fact that as a child you looked a great deal like Ziggy.

  10. Landon says:

    I imagine those conversations too, sometimes it motivates me to be the best ziggy.

  11. Very insightful and hilarious. I find myself doing this sometimes, but for some reason I think I’m being less judgmental by the way I phrase it. “Zack, isn’t it funny how so-and-so does such-and-such. I just think that’s funny.” Pretty much what I’m really saying is that I think they’re wrong, and Zack pretty much always calls me on it. I really do hate that part of my personality though. It’s something I think I’ll always need to work on. Only an hour a week though. You’re killin me.

  12. Andrea W. says:

    This is all so true, sadly. Danica, the way I say it is, “It cracks me up that so and so is so obnoxious.” Perhaps, maybe as we get older and learn to be content with the path we’ve chosen hopefully that need to criticize those around us for doing other things won’t be as great. Let’s hope, huh. It really is sad and annoying that we do that.

  13. Christian says:

    As a young man of 18, my eyes were opened to the destructive way humanity viewed itself; the way individuals viewed each other. So I did my small part to change that in choosing the scripture I did on my missionary plaque. The Referendum was one of those reasons.

  14. Serene says:

    Coming from one who got married at age 19 (almost 20 thank-you-very-much), and then ended up with four kids in four and a half years, I have been subject to LOTS of judgment. How do I know? Well, surprisingly most people aren’t afraid to tell me to my face. I think I should change my middle name to “Crazy”.

    Honestly, I don’t really care what other people are doing unless I wish it were me doing it! Besides, I have enough people telling me how crazy I am to worry about anyone else!

    Love the zig-zag, makes a who lot of sense!

    Awesome post!!

  15. Davis says:

    Serene, I’m sure you have. The questions of at what age to marry and how soon to have kids (and how many to have) are those that tend to get judged the most by other people. It’s too bad we participate in the Referendum so much on these issues (and others). Because at the end of the day, unless I’m your nanny, when and how many kids you have just doesn’t have any impact on me.

  16. Katherine (Foulger) Lewis says:

    I’m going to need to know what scripture Kook put on his plaque.

    Davis – Great post. I love reading your writing and hearing your thoughts and its been too long since I have visited DDDT. I always think you “nail it.” So, we do it just to make ourselves feel better? I do it but my husband doesn’t actually do it. It’s good to think about it, be more aware of it, and put forth an added effort to avoid thinking this way. Pride. It’ll be the end of us all.

    However, when it comes to siblings or your own children, those you love with a pure love, I think it might be a little different. But, who are you to know what’s best for them anyway? What if you don’t really like the person they have chosen to marry or the age that they decide to marry? What if you think they should transfer schools and get a better education? I always think I know what is best for my younger siblings, and heaven knows my older sibling always knows what is best for me! But, as it turns out, he/she hasn’t always been correct.

  17. Serene says:

    Davis, I had to laugh at your “nanny” referral so forgive me while I tell this little story.

    When my third was only a few months old, I flew by myself from Utah to Florida with my three kids under the ages of three.

    I walked off the plane in FL and a lady approached me and said, “oh, the kids are so cute! Are you the nanny?”

    I gave her a big smile and said, “Nope, I’m the mommy!”

    She seriously just turned on her heel and walked away.

    It was awesome.

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