One of my friends moved to Berlin when she was 21. She dropped out of a shitty state college where she was pursuing a degree in communications (with a minor in music, for good measure), and left. She didn’t get a proper visa and only had about 1500 dollars to her name when she went, sleeping on a friend’s couch “until she got on her feet.” She did their chores and cooked them dinner and kept her little space as clean as possible.
We all made fun of her before she left, mostly behind her back, but occasionally to her face. “What is she going to do over there? Be a hooker?” the more callous friends would ask. Once I told her, “I’m just worried about you. I don’t think you’re thinking this through.” She smiled at me and told me that she had thought it through, but that there was nothing she could do to convince me.
That was nearly six years ago, and she still lives in Berlin. She went from sleeping on a couch to working in restaurants to moonlighting at college to becoming an English teacher to working at a marketing company to owning her own apartment in one of the city’s most up-and-coming arts neighborhoods. She has been to nearly every country in Europe, and several others around the world. When she visits, every so often, she is full to the brim with exciting stories to tell.
Many of the people who made fun of her for leaving her shitty state school — most of whom went to shitty state schools themselves — are still slogging it out in restaurants. Some are living with their parents. They all regret being so cruel about her decision. When I saw her last year, I tried to apologize for how condescending I had been about her move. She forgave me immediately and said it wasn’t a big deal. I realized, across that dinner table in that nice restaurant I could barely afford, that it wasn’t a big deal for her. She had so many better things going on in her life, the opinion of one person she left behind did not matter.
There is something about the courage of others that makes us extremely nervous. It calls into question every safe decision we’ve ever made, and forces us to ask what we’re really protecting when we do things in the most comfortable way possible. Her huge risk to leave, to get out of the system we were all buying into, threw it in our faces that we were possibly making a mistake — that there might be something much better out there if we were brave enough to pursue it. While she is able to live without the burdens of debt and useless degrees that many of us chose, we are left with only our moment of cruel disbelief that we got to have before she moved.
The biggest regrets we have — at least from my perspective — are the decisions we don’t make because we think we’re guaranteed something. We choose college because we think we’re guaranteed a job. We choose staying home because we think not traveling guarantees more money. We choose not leaving our hometown because we think it guarantees us friends and comfort. We choose to stay in unfulfilling relationships because we think it guarantees we will never be alone.
And then we are confronted with the reality that none of this was ever guaranteed, and we only gave up on the thrill of our dreams because we were too afraid to see what else was possible. We convinced ourselves that we were investing in something, when all we were doing was excusing our cowardice. There are so many things I have not done in life because I assumed that it was the decision that would lead to success and happiness, and here I am, envious of everyone who was brave enough to do otherwise. And when I look around at my friends, and see the way they look at her when she floats back in from her life in Berlin, I know that they feel the exact same pang of remorse, too.