Standing On The Outside Looking In

The scarey hole in the wall

Middle school is an awkward and uncomfortable time of life for many of us or so we are told. I remember hearing from parents, teachers and after school specials that we all feel weird and that it goes away.

But I don’t know if it ever really did for me. I am not sure if I ever got past the feeling that I was standing on the outside looking in. I want to say I did.

I want to say that puberty came and went and I reached a place where I never felt foolish, stupid or uncomfortable. Want to say that I never had another time where it felt like everyone else had figured it out and I hadn’t, but that is not true.

Not true because some days I look in the mirror and wonder why life seems so easy for some people and how I managed to always find the hard way to do things.

Does Father Know Best?

Last night I sat down with my son and talked about his life. He told me about some of his hopes and dreams and shared some of his fears and I did my best to make him feel comfortable and secure.

I was honest with my answers and I told him there are moments where I wonder if I have made the right choices and admitted sometimes I feel like I have really screwed up.

When he nodded his head I made a point to tell him that I really believe happiness comes from managing expectations and how well we are able to roll with the punches.

Didn’t make that up. It wasn’t some sort of parental hypnosis or flat out bullshit.

It was me.

And then I thought about an experience a while back where I felt like I was standing on the outside looking in and I shook my head. I am going to be 45 in May and I have a very thick skin, but there are a few gaps in the armor and on that day mine was pierced.

Misplaced Priorities

Sometimes the discussions about long form content make me want to scream. People tell me that I have to stop writing the way I like to because no one reads any more.

They say attention spans are barely greater than a gnat and that I am killing my blog and that my professional work will suffer because people won’t read that either.

So I think about my friend Mr. Emerson and wonder what he might say.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes I read those words and thump my chest because I am me. I swim against the tide, stand fast against the hordes and guard the castle gates.

And then the guy who wonders about standing on the outside looking in asks if I have been smart. He wonders if the willingness to be different is wise and suggests that maybe I have brought more grief than joy.

Maybe I am wrong to look at others as having misplaced priorities. Maybe the reasons why I have fought more battles than others are all to be found in my reflection.

Sure I can point my finger at others and talk about what they did. I can shake my head and scream about the importance of healthcare for all. I can tell you that I didn’t watch the debate about science versus religion because I had better things to do than give my time to a guy who thinks Noah carried a T-Rex next to a zebra.

But maybe that has made life harder. Maybe I should look at the Sneetches with the gold stars and get one of my own.

What Lets You Sleep At Night

Midway through our conversation I hear him drift off and I smile. There is something reassuring to me about listening to the kids breathe while they sleep.

Sometimes when they were babies I would let them sleep on my shoulder and the sound of their breathing would magically pull the tension out of my shoulders.

Moments before his eyes closed we were talking about what it means to live a life that lets you sleep at night. I was talking with him about our Uncle Jimmy.

Uncle Jimmy died from complications related to being HIV+. I remember him well and I remember talking to him about what it meant to know you were going to die sooner than later.

I tell my son that he’ll figure out as he goes the difference between what he wants and what he needs. In the back of my mind I can hear Uncle Jimmy telling me he doesn’t want to die but that he isn’t scared. He wishes he had more time because there is more to do but feels good because the last part of his life he has been who he wants to be.

And then I wish for the hundredth time that Uncle Jimmy was still here because he said it better than I could. I wish he was here because there is more I could have learned from him.

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  1. Kristen February 6, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Lots of good food for thought here, Jack. Personally, I find that I’m becoming more and more myself as I get older, living less for other people (or at least for their opinions of me) and more for myself. As a parent I sometimes wish that I could allow my kids to skip over all of those awkward moments that come along the way. Then again, I guess those awkward moments are what make up a life.

    • Jack February 6, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Kristen,

      Age and experience makes it much easier to just be ourselves.

      One of the things I have loved watching with my son is that most of the time he really is doing his thing with little regard for whether it is “cool” or not, but middle school is starting to bring those awkward moments around more frequently.

      It is hard to see, but they are good learning experiences.

  2. Larry February 5, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Love this post!!!
    The interaction between you and your son is so genuine. I found myself shaking my head in agreement. Nicely handled.
    Btw, I do think Middle School was very hard. I was especially awkward then.
    ‘One more Emerson – know thyself. Seems like you do and you are teaching your son the same.

    • Jack February 6, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      I was introduced to Emerson in junior high. We read his essay on Self Reliance and I hated it. I didn’t understand it as well as I could have and it frustrated me.

      But I really have come to appreciate him, very smart guy.

      And my son, well I do my best to listen to what he is asking and then give him something that shows I at least heard him.

      Ideally it is something he appreciates, some sort of practical advice but that doesn’t always work out as well as I would like it to.

      But we try.

  3. Idaho Dad February 5, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    I’m almost 50 and still on the outside looking in. Like you, middle school formed me that way. Now I’m just used to it, and sometimes I actually prefer to be an observer and not a participant.

    • Jack February 9, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Hi ID,

      Sorry for the delayed response, found your comment in the spam folder, don’t know why.

      I sometimes wonder if that desire to stand on the outside hasn’t lent itself to writing. Observation of activity leads to introspection about said event.

  4. Stan Faryna February 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Maybe a random thought here.

    We make mistakes. We fail. Young or old – failure follows us like a pack of hounds on a blood trail. But fear and humiliation doesn’t have to own us. Because we can fix many of our mistakes, renounce them, get help, and make good of them in one way or another.

    I have a working theory – we stop standing outside when we are making good.

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