L’esprit de l’escalier

Surprise!! Here I am blogging on a Friday night. While you, on the other hand, are probably out partying and enjoying your life, and not going to see this until tomorrow. But it will be here when you return! Just like me…

Of course, the other people who are sitting all alone tonight are doing what I’m doing: trying to decompress from the week. It takes awhile, and it isn’t a pretty process. (Mostly because I wear pants with ducks on them and repeatedly rub my eyes until they are bloodshot.) De-stressing can take even longer when you are finally laying in bed at night, moving over the details of the day, cringing at every embarrassing moment, chuckling at every sarcastic thought. All of those unspoken words. All of those moments that passed without a second glance. All of those missed opportunities. The pain is suddenly physical when you think of what you should have said to your boss, partner, friend, etc. and what you only muttered in your mind.

The French call it L’esprit de l’escalier or “elevator wit.”  It describes the feeling you have when you leave a situation and think of the perfect comeback or the most succinct line. Of course, the rest of the world is a bit more uncouth and imprecise when it comes to this emotion. We call it regret. Our lives are full of it, moments that we wish we could take back, do over, and replay in our minds.

Except, life isn’t a movie or a filmstrip. You can’t cut it into pieces and edit it together the way you want it. You aren’t delivering lines from a script. You’re speaking. And while it feels good to tell someone what’s on your mind, sometimes it has real consequences. For example, instead of sashaying away with a renewed confidence after telling off your ex (like every romantic comedy ever), you might find that you feel just as empty inside as the day he or she left. Only worse because you just verbally abused someone who once cared about you.

Or what about telling your boss exactly what you think of your job? Sure, it is momentarily satisfying. Until you get in the elevator by yourself. And you replay all of that “wit” you had only moments ago. And you realize that you have to return to face your problems all over again tomorrow. No “exit stage left” like on the big screen. (However, the crying into a tub of ice cream is very, very real.)

The point is, nothing is perfect the first time. That’s why they call it a second chance. You’re allowed, and encouraged, to try again. So, if you’re having a bad case of l’esprit de l’escalier at night, and you can’t sleep because what you didn’t say is tormenting you, write it down for later. You may find that your snarky comeback will finally have a time and a place someday. Or you may find that it never really applied to the situation at all. Deciding which course of action to take is called wisdom. And that translates in every language.

It’s Not the Years in Your Life

Humans. We’re extending our lives a little more everyday. Doctors actually printed out a 3D heart so that they could save the life of a baby recently. We’re getting closer to immortality all the time. Maybe one day we can defrost Disney, become bionic, and clone our clones.

But being immortal isn’t going to help us live our lives now. In fact, it doesn’t matter how old you are, 9 or 90, you aren’t going to survive for 10 more years or even 100 if you don’t understand this basic principle: there is always time to live up to your potential.

You need to believe that you can start anew at any time. No matter how many times you have failed or how many times you have started over before. You have to know that you can learn or try anything new, at any age. That, just like Madonna, you can reinvent yourself.

I mean, I hear all of the time that children can learn languages quickly. A child’s brain is already mapping new ideas and connections all of the time, so what’s one more English word, one more Spanish phrase?

But what everyone assumes from this fact is that there is a small window that you have to jump through in terms of knowledge. If you don’t do something when you’re young, you will never learn to do it at all. And if you miss the opportunity, well, you miss out. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Science does not say that we ever stop learning at a fixed point in our lives. We can discover a new language, a new skill, or a new lifestyle at any time, and we absolutely should.

Yes, it may not feel like you have a lot of time on this Earth. And it isn’t fair that we are limited to a lifetime that is synonymous with the blink of an eye on any other planet. But I assure you, you will have plenty of time to write the next award-winning screenplay, the next 700-page tome, the next best chapter of your life. That is, if you start right now and never stop.

I don’t know when you’ll die. It could be tomorrow. And it could be 500,000 tomorrows from now. But I can assure you, if you begin by squeezing every drop out of life, you will never feel as though your time is running out. Just the opposite.

Help Me, I Know Things

I have a full-time job, two Bachelor’s degrees, and a night-light.

The latter is one of those big paper stars that houses a lightbulb and hangs from the ceiling. (The degrees are also made of paper.) I call it “Polaris,” and I only turn it on when I’m truly scared. Not when I see a spider in the corner of the room, not when I have recently watched Paranormal Activity, and not after I read the economy report (usually).

Proudly, Polaris protects me. Her soft glow floods the room, but it is just low enough that I can happily sleep without feeling like I have a spotlight from a lighthouse shining at me from the sea of my sheets. Sadly, though, Polaris is only a physical comfort. I have yet to discover a mental remedy for being afraid of things in my mind. And yet this is why I turn Polaris on.

And, of course, that’s the thing about what goes inside our mind, about knowledge itself. There’s plenty of fun facts out there: Baby jellyfish are called ephyra, for instance. These tidbits can fetch you a moment of amusement. But what about when you come across some particularly difficult information to digest or reconcile? When you finally come to terms with your own mortality or when you actually realize that humans aren’t at the top of the food chain?

I’m sorry for the less than cheery blog post, but I have to ask: why doesn’t knowledge come with a warning label? I mean, we actively seek it, and yet we don’t ask what we’re looking for. We don’t stop to ask for directions. We just keep going, picking things up along the way, unsure when or if we will need them. We’re kinda like Frodo Baggins in his quest to destroy the Ring. He doesn’t ask anyone if he’s headed in the right direction. He kinda just points with his hobbity finger towards the horizon, and he goes.

So, we can’t unknow things or unlearn things. There is no “great Ring to rule them all” that we can destroy and forget every hard fact we’ve encountered in our lives. But maybe that’s the point. It isn’t about what we know or understand. It’s more about how we come to fully process things, how we interact with things. I bet you can recall the first time you realized that you would die one day. I bet you can remember the moment when you knew that every person on this earth is living their own life, uniquely separate and independent of your own. I bet you can pinpoint the time when you figured out that you weren’t the center of everyone’s universe (or maybe you’re still trying to figure that out.) 

And realizing all of that, have you ever looked at life in the same way?

And that’s the point of knowledge. It’s supposed to stretch and challenge your perspective, not just scare you or cause you to hold on tighter to what you know. And importantly, if you take nothing away from this blog except the fact that I am a college graduate with a night-light, take away this: When you learn something, let it go. It has already changed the dimensions of your mind, so you don’t need to hang on to it. As long as you have a light that you are moving towards, (not into, just towards) like my Polaris, you can rest assured that knowledge will guide you safely home.