On the Lives I Left Behind


Fun in the Florida sun aside, the real reason I went to the USA last week was for my sister’s bachelorette party in Washington DC.  She’s getting married this summer, and used to live there many years, so 14 ladies enjoying a night on the town was the inevitable idea.

It all went well- a lovely time was had by all, although the cherry trees are slightly late this year we found one to take the above picture under (sis is in middle, one of her friends on the left), and I more than doubled my NPS stamp collection with all the monuments and memorials in town.  However there was one feeling in me that was very strong and always becomes a bit more noticeable each time I return to the US these days: the feeling that you are staring into the face of the lives you could have lived.

I suspect this is not a unique feeling to the average expatriate, and it doesn’t mean I am not proud of the life I forged abroad.  But Washington DC is a wonderful city with a culture that I understand intimately well- baseball! brunch! IPAs!- and it’s one thing to step off the treadmill and reject where you live and another thing to come back to visit and realize everything is still going on at home without you.  And much as I think it must be great to live there and am jealous for my sister that she did, I will never live in Washington DC in my 20s because I am busy working on my doctorate a hair before I turn thirty (the Dutch system dictates I get four years of funding, so my contract states I will finish September 2015).  I know everyone’s reaction is to say you can always live there later, and that’s true, but you always have places affect you differently based on the stage of life for when you’re living there.  Just like how my now-retired parents love Florida but I can’t understand its real appeal at 27, or how I want to return to New Zealand and reflect on what it was like during my first solo adventures there, or a myriad of other places you revisit and realize they might have not changed much but you certainly did.

Once again, I love Amsterdam and I love what I’m doing with my life, but I am a woman forever plagued by the lives I chose not to live.  Usually when I vocalize this people laugh- don’t I realize I’ve done more already than most people ever manage?- which always strikes me as odd because I don’t mind what other people do, I care about what I do.  And my life happens to be ordered in “what would you regret most if you never did it?” priority levels, plus a firm belief in how you cannot waste unique skills and situations when you have them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have some regrets for the paths you never chose.

(At this point someone will point out I am still 27, so there is time enough to do many interesting things.  While true in many ways at this point I will counter that you lack imagination, as I once worked out the time commitments for all the things I want to do and it was several lifetimes without factoring in any serendipity.)

I’m sure everyone feels pangs like this on occasion as part of the human condition, and the only people who leave life without regrets must have been very dull ones, so I will stop philosophizing now on it.  But I do think such a perspective on the choices you’ve made versus the ones you didn’t are much more acute when you leave your comfort zone for the big world beyond, and return to glimpse into the parallel universe of the lives you left behind.

7 responses to “On the Lives I Left Behind

  1. I totally relate.
    I’m not living abroad, as you are, but I often think “What if I’d chosent hat instead of that?”, ” What if I’d done that instead of that?”.
    We’ll never know. We can just make the best out of what we have chosen.

    Must say I also relate on “I don’t mind what other people do, I care about what I do” and this goes in so many ways. When I feel bad, some people in my surroundings tend to say stuff like: “Yeah but that person has it way worse” or “But at least you’ve got that, while some people…”. While that’s all very true, someone else’s situation doesn’t change mine. I know that’s a very egocentrical way of thinking, but I must admit I rather suck at putting things into perspective:)

    • Indeed. 🙂

      And I don’t think in such circumstances that’s an egocentric thing to think because it implies there is a certain amount of net happiness on the planet so your being happy hurts someone elsewhere on the globe. I’m not saying one shouldn’t be compassionate, but good fortune does not work like that!

  2. How about that day back in Africa, when that fat Masai clan chief almost incorporated you into his harem of 40? But then the car holding him, 3 angry Masai warriors and his even more angry second and first wife was charged by an even more angry Rhino mother and that parallel universe collapsed.

    Imagine contemplating every parallel universe for only 1 nanosecond. You would spend an eternity, of course.

    And only because the default life feels more real, is it really?

  3. I had that feeling for a very long time. I’ve found that it kind of changes over time. I still wonder what my life would had been like if I’d stayed in my home country and that feeling is strongest when I’m there but it is no longer with regret or any kind of worry that I might have missed out one something. Mostly because my life in Holland has been so amazing that I know now it was the best choice.

    • Glad to hear you think that Stuart. 🙂

      To be clear, I love my Dutch life a huge amount too and can’t even begin to describe how well things worked out for me here in ways I couldn’t imagine before. But I think places change as you do too- I imagine if/when I move into the next phase of my life I might want to move somewhere else for it.

      But then that’s minimum 2.5 years away, so right now when people ask if I want to go back to the US after grad school or stay in Europe I honestly tell them I have no idea. We’ll see what happens yet!

  4. Pingback: 2013 in Review | Where is Yvette?

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