I’m watching you from my apartment balcony. Your hat’s cocked sideways because you’re convinced playing it straight doesn’t get a man anywhere, at least not in your neighborhood. But that means you’ve already given up, and that’s not advised, because I don’t think you understand how long life is going to feel when every day is just a struggle to avoid “The Man” coming to wring out your life choices like a discarded car wash rag.
That’s about 22,000 days if you live to 75, but you probably won’t, because every day you wear those saggy sweatpants and hoodie and work boots and yell into the twilight at no one in particular as you walk by my apartment that you “don’t give a fuck!” you’ve spent one less day shifting your trajectory upward, away from a life of looking over your shoulder at who’s out to get you.
You may get a thrill tonight walking next to this girl who’s just as silently frustrated as you and is hanging out with you because you’re her sophomore year’s adrenaline rush novelty item, but that thrill won’t last for you, not even until you go to bed tonight.
That’s why, up at the next street light, you’ll pass a convenience store and kick a dent in the door, because you can, and because it makes you feel in control of something, and because it will make the girl grab onto your arm and squeal as you both sprint to avoid the store owner coming out with his baseball bat. That gives you a chance to pull her along, guiding her to safety from a threat that wasn’t there until you created it.
But then your heartbeat slows down and that anxiety from this morning returns, reminding you that you don’t really know what lies ahead, and you’ve had too much pride to ever ask anyone for help in this regard. Then the girl tells you she’s bored, again, and you get angry at her, but why should you get pissed at her? You chose her.
Right now, “The Man” is a vague bogeyman, any person with wrinkles on his face telling you there’s rules and that being an adult means setting limits on what you can do.
The wrinkled bogeyman is actually right, though. There are limits. Anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot trying to sell you an Instagram-filtered dream of all pleasure and no work.
Limits and rules are there to protect you from the harsh reality that life is just a bunch of trade-offs. Get used to thinking in terms of trade-offs; it’ll change your life.
Economists tell us “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s because of trade-offs. You choose to do one thing, that means you can’t do others. Everything comes at a cost; maybe not right away, maybe not visibly, but the cost always shows up eventually.
If you want to dress with your sweatpants hanging off your ass, yelling at people who look at you for too long, go for it. No one’s going to stop you, not even your mom after a while.
But that will mean your life options will narrow considerably. Try getting a job looking and acting like that. Try not being stopped by the cops for that. Oh wait, the cops are on their way over here now. The snarling kid in the baggy sweatpants and the hat hanging off his head who just kicked in a window up the street? That’s nothing. They see murders every week. You’re just a punk kid who’ll probably just spit on their car when they roll up.
There’s trade-offs for you. The short-term thrill you got tonight from not giving a fuck so you could keep an easily bored girl from moving on to another boy just made your freedom to not give a fuck next week a little less possible. The box around you just shrunk.
How about this as an alternative: Own your anger. Look in the mirror at yourself until you start to cry at how frustrated you are with the hand you’ve been dealt. Under that rage is the sadness that started growing the moment your mom smacked you in the face for accidentally dropping your plate of spaghetti on the kitchen floor when you were five.
Sit with that sadness below the anger, all alone, without a smartphone in your face or music blasting from your earbuds into your brain.
What’s on the other side of that sadness? The far side. The side that’s so far away from your daily experience that it’s just you, the sensation of your breath coming out of your nose, and the tears streaming down your cheeks.
I bet what’s on the far side is peace, and an inkling of clarity about what you have to do to get yourself out of this mess you made for yourself. You know not giving a fuck has to stop some day.
Why not make that day today?