Only One Way to Know
You should strive to learn as much as possible from others. But some lessons must be learned firsthand.
Life's far too short and much too permanent to make every mistake yourself.
Though almost everyone would say they try to learn from other people's mistakes, almost no one appreciates just how difficult it is to do so. Even when we make a conscious effort to be even-handed, we often unconsciously privilege our own experiences over the experiences of others.
That's why I've always tried to take pride in learning from other people's mistakes, to fight against our ingrained preference for firsthand knowledge. No need to endure all the trials and tribulations myself, I thought. I don't need to smoke to know I shouldn't smoke. The universal one-star reviews are enough.
But there is, of course, something unmistakably different about experiencing things firsthand. Words and pictures and videos will simply never do some experiences justice.
Experiences like—I don't know—the thrill of shooting a gun, or the giddiness of losing one's virginity, or the joy of holding your newborn child. You can say there's nothing like it. But until you've felt the rush of hormones yourself, there's no way to know what that really means or feels like. Some things you simply must try for yourself. Some lessons must be lived.
The problem, of course, is that time only goes in one direction. You can't put bullets back in the chamber. Once lost, virginity cannot be regained. Once born, children can't be unborn. There is no going back. So, despite the limits of what can be gleaned from others, in some situations what other people have to say is all we have to go on, until we decide to see for ourselves. Using what other people say as a gauge to figure out which things in life are really and truly worth trying is a very valuable life skill.
Which leads to a second problem: people are unreliable as hell about these things. They misremember. They engage in rationalization. They twist the facts to suit the story they'd like to tell.
With kids, for instance, I was always deeply skeptical of parents who said it was the best thing they ever did. They would always seem so exhausted. They would always go on and on about how hard it is, how it doesn't stop, how it never ends, how it's always something else—and yet, how they wouldn't have it any other way.
I would always wonder about that last bit. Most things I've read about parenthood suggest that, in the moment, parenting tends to lower parents’ quality of life. The exhaustion is real and painful. Yet, looking back, almost no one regrets their decision to take the plunge. The experience is harrowing, but meaningful. Hard, but worth it, everyone says.
Of course, at that point, it's not like they can really say otherwise. They can't go back and not have a kid. Life is permanent. Time only goes one way. So how much of the "best thing I ever did" feeling is really just rationalization, a way of making peace with the decision that was made? That's what I always wondered.
But I knew there was no way to ever really know. It's one of those things that must be felt firsthand.
Now that I've taken the plunge, I can tell you that, much to my surprise, having Dahlia is already the best thing I've ever done. By miles. Honestly, I thought I might be more skeptical. I thought I might be less susceptible to the rationalization most of us allow to pass for reason. Yet, despite talking to many parents over the years about the experience of parenthood, despite the pride I take in learning from others, I still vastly underestimated just how powerful the "best thing I've ever done" feeling would be.
Of course, I am already on the other side now. Already biased. Already trying to subconsciously justify a decision I would be powerless to take back now, even if I wanted to.
So we're back at square one, with you having no sure way to know whether or not you can believe me. Some quandaries in life really are inescapable.
You can learn a lot from other people's lives, but most of us don't learn nearly as much as we could. We continue to place way too much emphasis on what we've seen and heard and felt firsthand. We still insist on making far too many mistakes of our own just to be sure.
I'd encourage you to try to listen a little closer to other people's stories, to read studies about their experiences, and to seriously consider their suggestions. You can and should try to avoid experiencing life's most painful lessons firsthand by getting a good gauge on what's worth trying in the first place based on what people and research have to say.
But, at the same time, know that when it comes to some rather big things in life, there really is only one way to know for sure.