On Naïveté

13 September, 2010

21 days until 30


The older that I get, the more acutely I see that all of the pretenses that I believed made the world go ’round are really just illusions. This is closely linked to the realization that most people around me, no matter their age, gender, race, creed or status, are full of shit.

I don’t mean this rudely, or even negatively. We’re all full of it, putting out into the world the versions of ourselves that we feel most comfortable sharing with others. These alternate versions are part of us, but inherently could never really, truly be us.  Despite, or perhaps because of, this, we tend to drink in the personas that others are projecting. We use others as a barometer, to help us measure ourselves against the world and where we should be within it.

It seems that there are invisible status markers that exist like notches on some experiential growth chart, by which we try to qualify our own place in life. I remember a friend of mine, a few weeks before she turned 26, lamenting the fact that she thought she’d be married, owning a house in the suburbs, maybe with a kid on the way, with a good career, but one she’d be willing to leave for that family-track lifestyle, by the time she was 26. She had the career, but the rest was not exactly on the immediate horizon. I argued that she would be foolish to give up all of the positive things she had in her life at that point – besides the career, the friends, the studio apartment in New York, the social life, the complete freedom and independence, the very lifestyle of someone who only has to answer to herself – for a completely unknown future. Her only response was, “I know, but… I just thought…”

We all have notions of where we’ll be at what time, whether it’s in terms of career, location, relationships, possessions, or just a general sense of self. But at least in my circle, these presuppositions are rarely accurate. I can’t help but wonder: is that a bad thing?

It’s easy to say, when you’re in high school and turning 30 is a lifetime away, where you hope to be at any given point in your life. In fact, it was probably the easiest it will ever be, back then, to project where you’ll be and who you’ll be with at 20, 30, 40, 50… It’s easy because, simply, you don’t know anything. You have no sense of experience to imagine the colorful and misshapen stones that will be cast on your path as you go through life. And those stones are forever moving underfoot, forever changing who we are and how we interact with our experiences.

One of my dearest friends sent me a text message the other day, a long-distance SOS through the cloud between Paris and New York. She had just spent the night with a man, and, in not knowing exactly what she wanted out of it, now caused her to worry that it may have been what she didn’t want. Her message read: I feel like a child in matters of the heart, sex, causal or not.

It upset me to hear my friend distraught and doubting herself. She is a woman I look up to, a woman who’s advice I seek and heed, a woman who is so beautiful and talented that it often stymies me as to why she’s still single, but whose conviction to stay true to her heart is inspiring. It upset me because I feel like nearly all of my close friends have confessed to a similar confusion. Why, oh why, do we all feel we’re naïve in the ways of love? That question always leads directly to another: why do we let other people, and perhaps even more so our own expectations, make us feel this way?

I’m certainly as guilty of this as any of my friends, and perhaps just as much so as (if not more than) my poor, dear friend texting from Paris. I’ve always considered my lack of experience in the relationship realm to be my albatross, my secret to hide behind, to defend and classify my naiveté with. Is this legitimate? For years, I’d have argued yes. But in light of my “everyone is full of shit” realization, experience is healthy but hardly necessary. I know people with several relationships worth of experience under their belts whose advice means little to me, and friends who are perpetually single whose guidance is absolutely indispensable.

My milestone birthday is rapidly approaching, and I’m actually – finally? – enjoying a proper relationship, the kind that everyone else always seemed to have and that I could never seem to find my way into. And perhaps the most valuable thing that I’ve learned from it is that no matter what has or hasn’t come before means little when the relationship is live and real. It’s one day at a time, it’s every man and woman for themselves, while also being tea for two, two to tango, and a two-way street. I’ve spent hours soliciting advice and consultations from all shapes and sizes of friends, only to be increasingly convinced that what I do and what I know is reliant on me and only me.

But for years, with all my other false-starts and unrequited whatevers, I’ve let myself believe that I was only as worthwhile as the experience I had. And since that experience is not what I had always thought it should be, a healthy dose of inadequacy accompanied that feeling. Now I realize that it is imaginary ghosts and characters in movies that have inspired that inadequacy. At any given time, in any given relationship, you are the only one who knows what you want and where you want to be, whether it’s something you’ve ever experienced before or not.

It sounds like a healthy attitude, for sure, but it’s one that requires responsibility. On the one hand, it’s scary and strange to suddenly find myself with no meaningful excuses to hide behind, no one else to hold accountable. But on the other, it’s a liberating breath of fresh air to shed the expectations I thought were holding me back. It’s exciting and terrifying to have to answer only to myself and the relationship.

And so I realize that the only experience that’s valuable at this point in the game is that which I’ve just learned. I believe that in love, sex, relationships and partnerships, we are only as naive as we choose to feel; only held back by the expectations we’ve set for ourselves… most likely long ago, long before we knew where we’d be, who we’d be with, and what we’d want. Before we knew who we were. Before we became what we are now.

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