Have Wasted My Life
Part I: Introduction

I Have Wasted My Life
Chapter 1

It’s Monday, September 14, and I’m sitting on the steps in my back yard. A red sun drops slowly over the horizon as the days are growing colder, but the leaves on the apple tree haven’t yet started to turn. It won’t be long now.

I’m thinking back over the years and the miles that brought me to this point. I’m breathing deep and remembering the dreams and struggles. I’m pouring over long-forgotten events, pieces of me that I lost or destroyed along the way, others that I found and kept. Most of all, I am letting go of the grief for all the wasted years. For all the unnecessary struggle and fight, carrying or pushing against so many unneeded elements. I am allowing it all to slip away in the breeze, feeling it flow through me and fade with the day. Does life ever become, for most, what was hoped?

I take another deep breath and hold it before letting it go to mix with the dry autumn air. Today I am happy. Today I am grateful. Today I have found peace, I have come to terms with myself. Because today I have finally realized that I have wasted my life.

The Growing World
Chapter 2

Can you ever know who you really are or will become? Can you know what life will make of you, or you of it?

When I was five and six, my favorite moment came every afternoon when I stepped down off the bright yellow school bus. The air was always warm in Palo Alto, California, and the strong scent of fresh-cut grass meant that the remainder of the afternoon was all mine to play on the lawn, in the sandbox, not a care in the world until mom called for me to come to dinner or go to bed.

Sometimes I’d sit alone in the grass with my hands cupped around one of my most precious possessions. If no one was looking, I’d open my tiny fingers just enough to look inside at an imaginary globe of the world. Hovering over that globe, I could look down and see anything I wanted. I’d look in my friend Mikey’s house to see if he was home and what he was doing. I’d look in on my empty kindergarten or first grade classroom. With that tiny globe and my imagination, I would explore the limited boundaries of my small world, of my own limited experience.

Did I ever think to look to the future? Did I ever think to wonder what would become of me, or where life would take me someday? If I did, I don’t remember it now. If I ever did, I’m certain I never saw then anything like the realities I’ve come to know so intimately.

How could I have known that I would travel around the real globe, to Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Taiwan, and China? How could I have known all the mountains I would climb, the people I would grow to know and love, the jobs and careers I would pass through, the fears, the failures, the struggles, and the victories?

Fifteen years after staring into that imaginary globe, while walking past a park in Valencia, Spain in springtime, the same scent of fresh-cut grass drifted to my nostrils and instantly transported me back through time to those school bus steps, the steel rail I’d grip tightly as I stepped down on my short six-year old legs, and the feeling of freedom that came in the carefree hours of an entire sunny afternoon. I closed my eyes and breathed in the memory, sweeter even than when it was real, than when my size three tennis shoes scampered across the lawn or kicked through the sand. Sweeter because I finally knew the real value of that carefree and innocent existence. Sweeter because of the long absence that makes the heart grow fonder.

So here I stand, ten years after even the park in Valencia. I’ve breathed in that grass and memory so often that I’ve worn it clear through. The scent has been tainted now by memories of Valencian parks and so many other places where I’ve closed my eyes and transported myself back in time to my earliest carefree existence. The scent has been diluted by all the stresses and worries that I tried to escape with a mind-trip to those California afternoons. Now if I’m lucky, I’ll remember that six-year old the first or second time I smell the grass in early Spring.

No, you can never really know everything the future holds in store. Even if someone told you in plain English, you could never hope to understand. Experience stretches and shapes your understanding to give you your own unique, individual perception of life and the world.

The part that concerns me most is that so few people ever realize their dreams. So many people allow neutral, ambiguous events to decide who they will become, what their life will be. So many never even realize the misery and tragedy of passively accepting the reality presented to them by what their perceptions present as truth and reality.

Tomorrow I will sit in my back yard and watch the setting sun and mourn their loss. Tonight I’m too busy writing all this down, scribbling frantically through words and paragraphs, making up for lost time, struggling to make my life reach my dreams, and showing where I’ve been and what I’ve learned with the hope that these lessons will save someone else from the grief and despair of a wasted life.

Part II: The Self Portrait

French Vanilla
Chapter 3

Everyone knows the importance of choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream. You’ll be tested, and you don’t want to get it wrong and look like a fool.

At five, my favorite flavor was ice cream sandwiches. The chocolate outside made the experience rich and sweet, and the thin slice of vanilla inside kept my mouth wet and cool.

One would never satisfy, but one was all I got. Once gone, the chocolate and creamy ice cream left me thirsty, hungry for another, the hunger remaining until the taste had left my mouth.

Sometimes my favorite flavor was the cones dipped in the chocolate that hardened instantly around the generous swirls of soft serve vanilla and crunched between my baby teeth. At the ice cream stand near home or across the street from the San Francisco Zoo, these came with a colorful, small, glass animal figurine.

While eating my cone and for a long time afterward, I would hold the tiny figure in my tiny hand and stare. The intricate, tiny details of a gazelle’s legs and horns, the fascinating grace in the curve of a tiger’s slim body captivated me, held me in a willing trance. The colors swirled gently inside and turned wonderfully brilliant when held up to the light.

Other flavors have come and gone since. Peppermint. Tutti Frutti. Burnt almond fudge. Mint chocolate chip. But I always return to vanilla—or to the only variation that has lasted, French vanilla. "But vanilla’s so common!" I’ve heard the complaints. "Be original, think for yourself, choose something new!"

Sometimes they offer help and suggestions. "What about tin roof sundae? Everyone loves cookies & cream." If you haven’t tried it, maybe you’ll find a new favorite. But even when you already know you like vanilla best, they don’t always listen or relent. They somehow know better than you what your favorite is, and they’re determined for you to see things their way. That’s not what "favorite" is all about, of course, but that’s often the way it happens.

I never chose who I would be, not at first. Everything chose for me. That’s not what "identity" is all about, but that’s the way it often happens.

"Who are you?" A girl, a boy, man or woman. A student, worker. Smart, dumb. Capable, lazy. Says who? When did you decide? Did you even decide in the first place or simply accept what was handed to you, what you found conveniently laying on the sidewalk at your feet?

You’ll be tested on this. You don’t want to get it wrong and look like a fool.

If someone who knows better than you doesn’t appreciate your identity, they may offer help. "C’mon, think for yourself," they may say. "Be unique. See things my way."

Most influences on our self-perceptions are more subtle. "How much money do you make?" "What car do you drive?" "Who are your friends?" "What score did you get?" "Can you shoot three pointers?" Powerful suggestions about your identity and its acceptability to others are implied in every question and answer. Implications and suggestions like these had a significant impact on my identity the first time around, but I’m doing better, I’m remembering the colors, the crunch, and the thirst for my favorite flavor.

The more I learn about who I am, about what I like and how I want my life to turn out, the thirstier I become to know myself better, to choose who I will be, and to live accordingly, to make it come true. Each new clue feels like a refreshing bite into a soft ice cream sandwich, the sweet mix of chocolate and vanilla dissolving across my tongue, the salty ocean breeze tousling my hair, tempering the heat of the summer sun.

Life can be unique or average. This is unimportant. Life can be sweet or tangy or sour. Which do you prefer? My favorite flavor is the glass that turns brilliant when held up to the light. The sweet chocolate shell that crunches between my teeth when I bite in deep. The smooth vanilla that quenches my thirst momentarily, then leaves me craving more, and the memory never fades.

Send Feedback on I Have Wasted My Life