When I was 25, I lived with three young women in a beautiful old Victorian house in mid-Cambridge. One of my roommates was a woman I’m going to call Jen. Jen was four years older than me and one of those rare people who was probably born responsible. She set the timer on the coffeemaker every night before she went to bed, woke at 6:30am every weekday morning, and had a steaming hot cup of coffee waiting in the pot by the time she was dressed at 6:50am. She wore button-downs and khakis or simple t-shirts and knee-length skirts every work day and sports sweatshirts and beat up pajama bottoms every weekend. Jen made sure we had toilet paper and paper towels and did her laundry every Sunday night like clockwork.
Jen was a loyal friend and a family girl, through and through. She often attended Saturday night Irish dances with her octogenarian grandparents. She was in the marching band in high school and went on to get a degree in a science-based field from a large state university. She watched cheesy movies from the 80s and 90s and spent some weekends binging on Lifetime movies or romantic comedies. She longed for a boyfriend but could be awkward and overly eager when flirting which seemed to petrify the men she talked to at the bar. She was a Red Sox fanatic who wore man-sized versions of her favorite players’ jerseys to Fenway Park.
These are all objective observations of Jen based on my four years of living with her. I have been deliberate in my recollection because I am striving to report facts about Jen, rather than impressions or interpretations of her behavior.
The reason for this methodological care is because Jen has a COMPLETELY different memory of herself from the time she lived in that shared rooming situation in Cambridge. She moved out to the middle of nowhere (kept vague intentionally) to lead a work project and hooked up with a guy on her crew eight years younger than her. A year later, they were engaged to be married.
By that time, she had been living in a small town for over a year, and the “How We Met” section of her wedding website described the story of an “on-the-town City girl” falling for a “simple Country boy.” I read with fascination as I realized that Jen had made herself a heroine from a romantic comedy. You know, the one where the harried and sophisticated urban woman learns life’s most important lessons thanks to the love of a gentle and down-to-earth rural guy (who is likely a cowboy, farmer, etc).
I understand the need to frame our experiences as narratives: ordering our lives as if they are sequential events that lead to a conclusion provides a comforting rationale for why things happen. I get the longing to be the hero in your own story, described eloquently by my friend Molly here. When I read Jen’s wedding website, that overt desire didn’t stick out to me at all.
I was taken instead by how Jen’s description of herself seemed so far removed from the person I had known for four years. In no way could she ever have been described as an “on-the-town City girl.” She hated dressing up to go out, preferring to meet up for an after-work drink and being home by 10pm at the latest. When she described the epicurean hardships of life in a small town with only pizza and burgers for food options, I flashed on images of Jen making Hamburger Helper for dinner, ordering pizza regularly, and picking bars that specialized in burgers and beer when asked to choose a restaurant. She now has four children and her Facebook is littered with reminisces about her “single days in the City.”
This may all fall under the category of “who gives a fuck?” and in a lot of ways I agree that Jen’s self-perception of her late-20s persona is really of no concern to anyone but her.
On the other hand, I don’t think that self-deception is always so benign. As a rule, I’m not a huge fan of self-deception mainly because I think it prevents me from facing my worst qualities. I can interpret a night of drinking and hooking up with an unknown dude as evidence of my “wild and crazy 20s,” or I can interpret it with the nuanced lens of (still nascent) maturity and remember both the thrill of a night of booze-enhanced daring, and the crushingly empty psychological low the morning after.
As I’m nearing the back half of my 30s, I am noticing an increased tendency for people my age to yearn for past versions of themselves that may or may not have existed. These doppelgangers are almost uniformly remembered as free and daring and open to adventure and experimentation. It’s not restricted to the social self either: I’ve seen people who recount artificially-inflated professional accomplishments after leaving jobs to the (discreet) relief of their coworkers. I see men and women who insist that (abusive, awful) exes of their 20s are the true loves of their lives. I hear people who have photos and journals documenting eating at McDonald’s for entire backpacking trips through Western Europe wax philosophical on their experiences enjoying different regional specialties of Italy or Germany or France.
All this yearning and self-deception and recalling a falsely adventurous life boils down to one thing: a lot of us have a hard time with the idea that our best years may be behind us. It’s hard to face the reality that our lives have walked down certain paths and that we aren’t going to have all the adventures or all the drama or all the possibilities that we are taught is our birthright. Conversely, choosing to live in a rose-colored past makes it almost impossible to age gracefully or to develop any type of wisdom.
The public health research nerd in me wishes this phenomenon could be quantified in some way to create a screening checklist that measures various degrees of self-deception. I feel like there must be a correlation between remembering your past with a high level of self-deception and life satisfaction in your mid-life years. How happy can you really be if everything good has already happened to a version of yourself who never existed?
For now, I will try really hard to resist the urge to practice self-deception in my own life: I was a selfish asshole for a lot of my teen years and into college and probably beyond. I used alcohol as a way of feeling comfortable with my body for a long time. I pushed aside good friends because I didn’t know how to address problems head-on. I mistakenly believed that relationships with men should have a lot of drama because drama=passion. I was flagrantly immature at work.
I also fell in love for the first time and have never felt that intoxicating, all-encompassing, soul-crushing constellation of emotions ever again. I sneaked past locked gates late at night to walk on moonlit beaches. I danced in darkened clubs while music and alcohol coursed through my veins like some sort of heady drug. I spent entire weekends with girlfriends who felt like sisters. My credit card bill used to be only clothing stores, restaurants and bars.
Like the life I am living now, there were amazing times and there were awful times. I was the best version of myself and sometimes, the very worst. I assume this cycle will continue indefinitely. The best I can hope for is to enjoy the good in life gratefully, and face the hardships gracefully.
No self-deception allowed.