When I was a young man, I had a fantasy that when I became an adult, really became an adult, I would have everything all figured out. That the insecurity of trial and error would go away, and I’d know what to do and what not to do about any situation that might arise. It never happened. There was never a moment when I crossed the river into a clear and untroubled adulthood. I’m calmer and more patient than I used to be. I no longer think that mistakes say something terrible and permanent about my character. But I still make them, and sometimes I wonder who I truly am.
These days I tend towards a different fantasy. What if I could go back and live my teenage and college years again? Not as the person I was, but as the person I’ve become. Because even though I still make plenty of mistakes, a lot of the angry posturing of my post-punk college days is gone. I’ve aligned myself to a faith and a creed, and that’s brought a lot of peace. But not so much peace that I don’t regret the past, and fantasize about going back and knowing people in a different way, being wise and kind, the rare kid who is honestly interested in taking care of other people. The rare kid who has the confidence to go off by himself when he needs to, as well, and who knows himself well enough to pursue his own particular interests without caring what other people think of them.
Both of these fantasies are equally meaningless, and therefore bad for me. Malcolm Guite, in his book Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, talks about Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy. Imagination is deep. In Christian terms, to truly imagine something is to enter into God’s vision for it. Fancy is superficial. It’s to indulge in goofy fantasies, telling oneself stories that are, ultimately, self-glorifying. Both of my fantasies are about my being more perfect, either in the future or in the past, and both are equally silly. All the energy that I put into fantasies of the future or the past is a distraction from my own deepest feelings about the world, and distract my ability to truly think about God’s will, to imaginatively align myself to God.
Back when I was in college, I learned about the four life-stages, or ashrama, of Hinduism. I find it helpful to think about them now. I’m in the middle of the householder stage, which is all about duty, taking care of one’s family, doing good for one’s community, and working to make money. Traditionally, this stage ends when you’re forty-eight, which for me is only six years from now. Already I find myself drifting towards the next stage, in which one begins withdrawing from the world and concentrates on sharing whatever spiritual wisdom she or he has attained so far. But I find it reassuring to think that the chaos and confusion of my young life was essentially appropriate to the first stage, when I was a student and therefore meant to learn and make mistakes. And that the householder stage I’m in now isn’t really about perfection, but a set of purposes and the meanings that I make of them.
The pleasure of thinking about life in this way is that it releases us from the fancy of perfection. Instead of thinking that adulthood is something that suddenly happens, a single, sharp break in human life, it’s useful to subsume it in other categories. There are stages of adulthood, and some of them include portions of our childhood. I am not perfect, and will never attain the pure perfection of God. But by putting aside my fantasies of perfection, I can free myself to enter into the imagination of God, to go deep and try to see the world the way God does, which means seeing myself through the eyes of love rather than criticism – the kind of love that frees one from regret.