Finishing Years

Finishing Years December 26, 2012

Warning: This is a personal blog post, in which I reflect on my feelings about the new year and how I felt about new years past. I promise nothing of general philosophical relevance or interest. Just a whole lot of navel gazing. Read at your own discretion and only if you are interested in my navel.

My favorite holiday is New Year’s Eve, though some years it terrifies and depresses me.

That’s because I am obsessed with time. And I am obsessed with time because I am obsessed with living a good life and I only have a finite amount of time within which to do that. So, I am fairly compulsive about making an accounting to myself of how I am using my time. And every New Year’s Eve is something of a deadline and every New Year’s Day brings something of a gift–the gift of an opportunity that runs out at the next deadline for using it, a year later.

I know whether I have had a good year or not by how I feel when I hear the date for the coming year.

The new year’s number always sounds strange and fantastically high. Especially since we entered the 2000s, each new year sounds like some far off futuristic date. Until I started thinking about it a month ago, the year 2013 still sounded about as futuristic to me as 2015 did back in 1989 when Back to the Future II came out. Only after a year has actually arrived does it start sounding believable.

When I have had a bad year, one in which my life didn’t advance enough in the ways I had hoped, the new year sounds not only like the future but a future come too soon, before I was ready for it. I feel like I still have to go finish living the past year in the next year. But that’s mostly impossible. I’ll have to live the next year with an unfinished and mostly unfinishable year behind me.

And when the years keep unfinishing, each new year makes my heart sink a little more. I see the futuristic time I am being asked to live in and the stack of unfinished years and get overwhelmed. I feel like going back and finishing them all–but that’s mostly impossible and there’s a future I’m unprepared for that I must go live in.

I’ve mostly finished most of the years in my life, when I think about it. But I had a bad string of 4 or 5 where I really fell behind in ways that still feel irrecoverable. Whatever the drawbacks of the disciplinary structure of academia, from grade school through graduate school there is something extraordinarily comforting about the sequence of grades and years you progress through, and the steadiness with which you can get promoted from one to the next just by focusing on the assignments given to you one at a time, each semester at a time. Until I was 24 and done with my coursework in graduate school, at the end of each year, no matter how much else was left undone, I could at least feel good that I had hopped the allotted academic hurdles and earned my way to the next logical stage of my academic and professional development.

And, being so young, not finishing off the tasks I’d set for myself in other areas of my life was not such a big deal either. The ultimate deadlines I was aiming at were much farther in the future and would probably be quite negotiable even when I got there. I could dally a bit while I was so young. And when I turned 25, I was done with coursework but moving into the classroom for my first year of teaching felt like going up a grade at least. There was an automatic accomplishment for 2003 in that. The last freebie advance year that you get is that first year of real adult work.

My first year of real panic at a new year arriving was 2005, as I was about to turn 27, because when I was 26, in 2004, I didn’t advance. It was my first year left to my own devices without an automatic promotion for just passing through. And, as such, it was the first year I didn’t have a strong sense of how exactly to stay on the track and reach the next “grade”, i.e., the next academic promotion to the next academic stage. I was at the stage of having to propose my dissertation and it was a lot messier and more chaotic for me than going through classes had been. I meandered unfocused that first year and panicked when it ended without much progress.

The next few years I drifted with no clear sense of how to get to the next levels each year. Each year would end miserably unfinished, not only personally but now, for the first years in my life, academically too. I was so rattled by what I had failed to accomplish each prior year that I didn’t even know how to plan to do better the next year. The next year was always just there too soon, that was all I knew, and I developed a narrative about myself that I was simply a guy with too many unfinished years who didn’t even belong in the present.

But that didn’t stop me from hurtling deeper and deeper into the future. It seemed to only accelerate the process. Each impossibly futuristic New Year would keep showing up and discouraging me and continuing that narrative that I was a guy unfit for the present or, for that matter, the future. How was I supposed to live in 2007, 2008, or 2009, when I had not finished 2004, 2005, or 2006? And, come to think of it, what had I really done with 1994 or 1997 or 2000? When their unfinished business was still unfinished at the end of 2008, I wanted to hold my time-squandering younger selves more and more accountable. But they were gone. There was no one to suffer for their failures but me and nothing that I could do to undo them. I could only move forward.

But in 2009, I pulled a year together. I finished it. I couldn’t tell you that I’d had any time to go back and wrap up 1994-2008, but I had had a year that I didn’t end with a sinking sense of lost possibilities. I had made it to 2010, at least academically. And then 2010 was an easy one to finish. I had to finish it. My graduate school clock was up and, being something of a last minute superstar, I inevitably finished it out well, and did so just in time. 2010 I had at least gone up that last grade of academic achievement and could be relieved.

But I knew that unless I set myself a goal for 2011, I would fall behind again. So, I welcomed 2011 setting myself informal benchmarks for what “finishing the year” would mean, as though I were still a student with a set of hurdles to make it to the next grade. Because, I reasoned, now that I was out of school and off its disciplining track altogether, I had to set my own benchmarks of grade advancement, lest I start taking years for granted and stagnate.

And I made it. I finished 2011 way ahead of where I had even hoped I would be at its beginning. And I welcomed 2012 with raised ambitions. And I finished the year. And again, not only had I finished even more of the year than I had hoped, I did a little bit of the mostly impossible. I finished key bits of old years. I finished a bit of 1995, a bit of 2000 and 2001, a bit of 2003, and, to my great relief, a bit of 2005–the nightmare year where I not only didn’t get back on track but sailed right off the rails.

And now, upon a lot of reflection, I have come to believe that 2012 was–even with a miserable ending–the most fulfilling year of my adult life so far. It’s rare for me to have a year that goes so well for so much of the year across so many spheres of my life.

It was not an easy year. It was a year where I constantly challenged myself and was constantly challenged by others. And the sweetest part of the year ended up being only bittersweet. And the last three months were generally just bitter. But I made it through the year stronger, reinvigorated, with renewed confidence and a deeper sense of myself. I matured a lot intellectually and emotionally. I made and/or deepened a few friendships that I will surely cherish my whole life. And I made the kinds of memories that can add a little light and warmth during life’s inevitable dark nights of the soul. And I accomplished a lot of goals, including ones I had all but given up on consciously pursuing before this year.

And I have positioned myself for a potentially incredible 2013. It’s been years since I’ve looked forward to a new year as much as I look forward to this coming one. I’m poised to advance in a lot of ways. But I am also trepidatious. Expectations are high. And as great as 2012 was, it cannot come with me. As great and satisfying as really finishing a year is, when it’s finished it’s finished. It stays in the past. We only get to live in the present and, as nice as some memories are, everything we actually can look forward to is in our future, not in our past.

So, as good as I want to feel about 2012, I am keenly aware that it soon will be over. And, more poignantly, the best part of it is already over and won’t continue in 2013. Other things set in motion in 2012 do look to pay off in 2013 and 2014. But I have to come through for that to happen.

Thinking over 2012 brings me relief from my anxieties and worries about the daunting challenge of finishing years. But looking backward won’t finish 2013. It won’t even finish what was left unfinished in past years to look back to them either. Never have I felt so ready to look forward, to dream so much about what I might finally be able to finish in the near future if I focus day to day. In the end, 2012 both satisfied me and, in the process and in the aftermath, made me hungrier than I have been in a long, long time. It was both a year to remember and one I want to surpass as soon as possible.

I have a lot of unfinished business to attend to. Maybe there are even a few bits of old years I can finish up a bit yet; the parts that are possible to finish late, anyway. It happened this year some. Why not next year?

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