The funny thing about missing out is that you can never know what it is exactly that you missed. Even if you ask around, we all experience life differently. Other people’s reality wouldn’t have been, couldn’t have been yours. So the first thing I want to make clear is that of all people’s, my perspective on the transition from high school to college is the one that you should probably least be able to trust.
Because I did the reverse of taking a gap year: I skipped my last year of high school. At some point over the summer going into my sophomore year (Year 11) I realized that I didn’t much like the schooling I was getting and did seem to like the idea of going to Oxford. And through studying a year early for the standardized exams Oxford requires American applicants to have completed, I was able to make it out of my meatgrinder-esque institution of a high school. In June, once the school year was over, I was a high school dropout and headed to university.
They say you regret the things you don’t do the most – with the implication being that given a choice between two actions, one is the “doing” action and the other is the “not doing” action. I think that is a ridiculous proposition. For one, it’s obviously not true. Whichever branch of the fork in the road you choose, you never get to go down the other one. And it is this idea, I believe, that makes the fear of missing out such an influential one.
Not only have you missed some event in the past, you’ve precluded from yourself the future you would have had had you just done differently. If I had just been there at the party, she would have kissed me and not him and we would be together now and not them. But also: if I had just stayed home, I would have aced that test and gotten that scholarship I needed. We talk a lot of win-win situations: situations in which both outcomes are good ones in absolute terms. But isn’t one always relatively better than the other? And, therefore, when we don’t get, haven’t we actually lost?
So the question of how things – my transition to college, my overall happiness, my personal and intellectual maturity – would have been if I hadn’t skipped a step in the traditional path is one I can’t help but grapple with. Not that I think I have had a bad transition, or am unhappy, or am outside the normal bounds of adolescent self-mastery. I am also fairly confident that had I stayed in high school, that year would have been a bad one. First, I perceived the very structure of secondary education to be oppressive – with its seven hours a day of sedentarily listening to nearly useless material, followed by hours of homework. Coupling that with the fact that I would have had to worry about the stress of college acceptance for up to 14 months longer than I did – well, here seems to clearly beat there.
But what if that extra year, even if it were of misery, meant that my transition wasn’t just fine or good, but great; that the build-up of anticipation eliminated the uneasiness which characterized my first term’s happiness; that I had wrinkled out some of those insecurities that constrained my character? After all, a year is a long time – I know how much I personally changed in 2015. And while there are two other 17-year olds at Balliol, and I’m sure plenty across the university, a much larger proportion of first years are actually 19, which is why I raised the gap year as a point of contrast earlier. You take one so that you can have a year for yourself; in doing the opposite, you lose a year in which you are becoming yourself.
Of course, the question of “what if?”, which is essentially what I’m on about, is not answerable. And since it isn’t, I’m never going to have the experience of having gone down the other fork in the road to compare to the experience of the chemin I did choose. Practically speaking, I have all the evidence I’m ever going to have and should be able to justify my decision off of it. So in one way, I have no regrets about my choice: I am happy at Oxford and can only see myself becoming happier. Coming was the right thing to do.
And maybe it is a waste of time to get yourself trapped in a maze of right/wrong, should’ve done/did, either/or dichotomies. Agonizing about an unchangeable past seems silly, and one might at this point remember Sylvia Plath’s fig tree and argue that being too caught up on “what if?” also paralyzes your forward motion.
But on the other hand, reflection about the structure that your life could have had seems to me just as valuable as being able to forget. It might be paralyzing, but it is also honest—and the idea that you should just keep moving, while productive, lets you elide admitting to yourself your missteps. Neither commends itself over the other; whether you remember or forget is no more than a matter of whether you are the type to remember or the type to forget.