There is a Lou Holtz quote that, in all its misquoted and paraphrased and Pinterest variants, goes: “In this world, you’re either growing or you’re dying, so get in motion and grow.” You’ve probably seen it in the guise of the adage that you’re either learning or dying, or the fact that you learn something every day, but the sentiment remains the same. Learn or perish. Learn, or else.
In the constant wave of pieces regaling the x things someone has learned in x years, or things someone wishes they knew at one age or another (hell, I’ve written one of these pieces, too) there always seems to be the undercurrent school of thought: What do we not know? What have we yet to learn? We read these pieces, hoping to glean some knowledge from someone else — this is, after all, why we read to begin with. But there’s so much to know and so much to discover, that if we were to compile all the lists in the world, we’d only ever get a fraction of what applied to any one person at any time in life. What I’ve learned will always be different from what you’ve learned will be different from what Beyoncé’s learned, no matter how many years we each spend on earth. But being realistically aware that there is only a finite amount that I’m capable of ever learning doesn’t mean that I don’t have a long list of things I hope to learn — there are so many, and the following are just a few. (It’s a bit contradictory to speculate on knowing what I don’t know, but let’s just work within the frames of vague ideas for the time being.)
1. What the rest of the world looks like firsthand.
Tell a city kid that the great expanse of the world is farmland and forests, trees and grass and sun and surf and skies, and they won’t believe you until they see it for themselves. It sounds so naive, but it hit me on a recent trip to a small town that really, the skyscrapers and endless neighborhoods and suburbs I grew up with are an anomaly, that the rest of the world is hardly as constructed as New York or Los Angeles or Mexico City. Capitals and epicenters like to think they move the world, but the world is so much more than that. The world would keep on going without wherever it is you call home. The rest of the world is self-sustaining without metropolises and cities and singular places. It sounds so obvious, but there is more to the world than vacations, beach towns, and airplanes over flyover states. The world exists in real time to real people in these very real cities and towns and villages, and though you can try to squeeze as much exploration into backpacking trips and getaways, in friends’ Instagram flashbacks and movies, you’ll never see everything. But you can still make a list of places you want to see — not just to visit, but immerse yourself in. And then you can go.
2. Not just how books end, but how they middle and how they begin.
The Library of Congress in Washington, DC alone has literally millions of books — and though you could easily Google the plots to each one, you still couldn’t read a satisfactory synopsis for each one in your lifetime. But though we live in a world where you can search the Internet for answers to questions, and peruse Cliff Notes for last-minute help for that paper you put off, there’s something wonderful in losing yourself in a story and finding out for yourself. The plot doesn’t make up a book — the details and feelings and punctuation do. I want to discover all the jokes, all the asides, all the monologues and dialogues and descriptions myself. Don’t spoil the ending, please.
3. What it’s like to love someone without strings or qualifications.
It rarely ever occurs to us until it happens and for many of us, we can only wonder if and when the kind of love that bulldozes us ever will. We can only ever hope to stumble upon someone who is not at all what we “usually go for” — after all, if you knew that person would be It for you, you’d go for them to begin with. Love often happens when we weren’t looking for anything but fell into it regardless, and it was better than anything we would have chosen for ourselves had we been given said choice. I hope that one day, fate intervenes and gives me a love greater than I think I deserve (I was reading John Green this weekend, sue me).
4. What it’s like to have someone love me back that much.
We see those couples, the ones who are so entranced by each other, and realize we cannot fathom what it would be like to have the kind of joy that comes from simply going home to someone who makes your heart swell and calms your mind down each day. But we can hope. We can hope that the love we feel growing and waiting is preparing itself for something. That all the depths and caverns of our hearts and souls are perfectly suited to hold another person’s edges and quirks. That someone could be entranced by us like that, and that one day, we’ll look back and the only regret will be that we were too cynical and jaded to just have faith that it was only a week, month, year away. And that the time would be worth it. That for once, someone would be head over heels for us, and it wouldn’t be a reach. It would just fit.
5. How to fold a fitted sheet.
Also see: how to bake a soufflé that doesn’t sink, how to make a bouquet of flowers last longer than 3 days, how to take a stain out of silk, how to change a tire, to find a shade of foundation that actually matches my skin tone, and how to generally be more ingenuitive and slash or domestic. Will also settle for learning how to wear four inch heels throughout a 12-hour day without a break. Maybe that’s just equal parts masochism, advil, and stubbornness, though.
6. If some kid somewhere ever did get a letter from an owl when they were 11.
At the very least, I’d like to know all the different ways magic hits us in the very real world. In the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore even says that love is a certain kind of magic, and maybe this goes back to loving someone bar none, but everyone should get to experience that kind of magic at least once. There has to be other kinds of magic in this world, too. As much as science is at play for all the lives we save and advances we make in modern medicine, there’s something comforting in also believing that something — whether it’s fate or faith or the Universe, whatever you like — at play as well. I hope I never stop believing in magic.
7. What my children’s names will be.
Or if I even have children. Or if I am the kind of person who should have children — or if I want them, whether or not the world tells me I should, or if it’s a matter of meeting someone who makes me want to have children with them specifically. Maybe I’ll know in 10 years. Maybe I won’t. But maybe I’ll have a better idea toward that answer, and if I already have kids by then, hopefully they’ll have names they won’t hate, and personalities that will grow into character in 20 years’ time. (Though if my own personality as a child is any proof of karma, I already know that there will be moments wherein, as their mother, I will question that frequently.)
8. What the consequences of today’s issues will be.
We want to presume we know, because research and science and intuition tells us what results the overarching structures we’ve erected will yield in 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now. What world we’ll be living in by the time we’re well into our old age, and if we’ll look around and realize that it was our fault that our children’s children live in the age and culture that they do. For the sake of argument, we always like to say with certainty that such and such a thing will only be detrimental in the coming months, years, and decades — but of course, we never really know what will revolutionize, what will change, and how we’ll (maybe) be compelled to change it in response.
9. If my genes will go the way of J.Lo ageless or not.
Look. I’m not saying that the thing I’m going to care about most as I inch toward middle age is what I look like, but I am saying that I would appreciate if the universe could spread its gifts and wonders of gravity-defying asses and perpetually wrinkle-free foreheads. Not that it matters in the scheme of things. I’m just saying that I wonder about it sometimes.
10. The countless other things I don’t yet know.
To list everything I don’t know would be a crapshoot. There will always be more to discover. But if we begin to wonder, to ask, to explore, to discover, we can at least learn what else there is to learn. You’ll never figure out what you know until you identify where the gaps in your education are. You need to do this before you begin to fill them in. So let’s ask questions. Let’s try, and fail, and try again. Let’s go there. Let’s ask. Let’s learn. The best things are the ones we don’t know we don’t know yet. I hope the thing I learn more than anything is that it was only ever a matter of going forth and keeping the faith, and letting the rest come as it was meant to.