When I was in ninth grade, I had one of the most stressful tests of my life. Waiting for me at the end of the year was the New York State Sequential Math 2 Regents exam and it felt like the big closing moment of, well, my life. I couldn’t imagine what my world would be like after that date.
Torture for New York students, this yearly test was the bulk of our grades and showed its ugly head in a number of different subjects. While it caused anxiety across the board, the Math Regents in particular was my killer white whale. It seemed insurmountable and, for a while, really consumed me.
I hated math. I hated solving for X. I hated theorems and showing my work. I hated excusing my dear Aunt Sally. No matter how hard I tried (which, in hindsight, wasn’t all that hard), I couldn’t grasp any of it. While English tests gave you wiggle room to talk your way around your ignorance, mathematics was solid facts and solid figures. I had neither.
The test itself was presented as a make-it or break-it moment in my life. Grown ups like to over-exaggerate the importance of big events in order to make kids understand the gravity of them. This was no different. I was assured that colleges and eventual employers would one day analyze my ninth grade math grades to see if I was a fit adult. I definitely felt like this one day in 1991 was the most important day of the rest of my life. Many people around me said those exact words.
I dreaded that test for months. It turned my stomach in knots and even now, decades later, I remember that entire morning. From showing up early to lining up my number two pencils to the sharp pain in the side of my neck that plagued me that whole day, so much of it is still vivid in my mind.
So, after nearly an entire school year of worrying, nausea, and doomsday scenarios, I sat down to take the test and…guess what happened.
Are you guessing that I passed? That would be a great ending, right? I passed and everyone was proud. It would be a sweet finish.
But hold on…based on what I just said, though, you’re probably now guessing that I failed. After all, that seems like a good place to base a life lesson, right? Work hard, fail, and come back to fight another day.
OK. So the truth? I have no idea what I did. I mean, it’s entirely possible that I passed. After all, I eventually made it through school and through Sequential 2. It’s also possible that I failed, as I definitely had to retake some of those tests along the way. Whatever happened that day, three years later, I graduated from high school. That test was just a small part in the bigger picture of my high school education, which itself was just a small picture in the rest of my life. None of those events were stand alone moments that would destroy me if I faltered, even though they felt that way at the time.
The problem was that I was seeing my life as a movie. There was a definite story being told and whatever obstacle I was facing was the big finale without any day after. If I was studying for a test, the story was about me passing the test. If I succeeded, it was like the end of Rocky. I jump around with the world cheering and throwing streamers. If I fail then I’m a failure and, I guess, they just bury me in the ground.
I convinced myself of that, but maybe, though, that wasn’t the big ending. After all, my life’s not a screenplay and neither is anyone else’s. It doesn’t end when you get back your grades or shake a new boss’s hand. In many cases, that’s just the start of another chapter. You live another day and it doesn’t feel like the end of any fairy tale. Yet, we worry about it as if it is.
But perhaps what you’re worried about happening wasn’t destined to happen at all. Maybe you weren’t meant to ace your exam and instead learn how to bounce back from adversity. Maybe the job that you’re applying to isn’t supposed to be where you end up and the experience you get from that rejection leads you to a better one. Maybe your story isn’t about your child eventually learning to speak but about learning new ways to communicate with a loved one. You just don’t know what lesson you’re living through or what the moral will eventually be. All the worry you put into this false perception is just wasted energy that makes the entire process harder.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to emerge victorious in situations that seem like big endings. In reality, your endgame could happen at any time and take place in your sleep or randomly crossing the street. Rarely is the finale of our lives ever tied to achievements or victories. That stuff is more for the Karate Kid and down-on-their-luck Disney Channel softball teams than real people. Our stories are much longer and don’t end with curtains closing.
The irony is that the moments I found myself genuinely nearing a possible finale, whether through surgery or accidents, I didn’t have time to build up worried anticipation. They happened and I handled them in the moment. I did, however, make myself sick over small nonsense like road trips and get-togethers that wound up being nothing more than cogs in the mechanism of my life. Seems insane in hindsight.
It’s that built up anticipation that made these events into much bigger deals than they needed to be. All the stress about conquering these moments didn’t help me succeed. All it did was make me pained, worried, and convinced that everything about who I am hinged on how I performed in this one moment in time. My life, however, is made up of so many more moments than those. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now.
I realized that my obituary won’t read, “James Guttman – father, husband, and guy who maybe failed his ninth grade New York State Math Exam.”. My time on Earth will have a finale one day, but it will most likely be something I don’t stress about beforehand. Life is too short for wasted anxiety. Stop worrying about the end and start living in the now. It changes everything.