It’s only a bit of an exaggeration to say that my childhood consisted of a series of extended acts of make believe—episodes in which I pretended to be some of the various interesting characters, both fictional and nonfictional, who showed up in my world.
At one point, I was Luke Skywalker—heroic space-pilot savior of a galaxy far, far away. At another, I was John Riggins—rough-and-tumble fullback for the Washington Redskins. Later on, I was Sodapop Curtis—the outsider heart-throb who was both tuff and tough. A few years later, I was Stewart Copeland—a blonde, slightly goofy drummer who still managed to be a rock star (as a member of “The Police”) even if he wasn’t exactly a heartthrob, a professional athlete, or an intergalactic savior.
There were lots of other roles I played along the way, of course. Seasonally, I could also be a basketball star, an Olympic swimmer, or the first American male to make a fortune playing soccer. Professionally, I could be an astronaut, a soldier, or even a certain sort of adventurous archaeologist. There were also times when the various roles I played changed frequently—when I was a soccer star one moment and Indiana Jones the next.
What I never was, as far as I can recall, is what I actually am: a middle-aged, middle-sized white guy, with three kids, a mortgage, and a job as a director at a consulting firm. I was never just another balding, nearsighted dad. I was never just another statistic. And I was certainly never Barney Busrider–the guy in the fourteenth row on the commuter bus, composing blog posts on his iPhone to while away the drive.
By my own initial expectations, then, I seem to have failed at life. I started out believing I was destined for greatness—at galaxy-saving, football, music, something—and I’ve since had to trade down repeatedly.
I can still remember when I realized, around age 13, that I was never going to be a professional athlete: Too small, too slow, not talented enough. I also remember when I realized I wasn’t going to be a rock star: There were better drummers in every high school in America, and my brother wasn’t exactly Eddie Van Halen, God bless him. I wasn’t bold enough to bet my future on finding a band and making it big.
Instead, there was college, and the job market, and the lingering secret dream of someday making it as a writer (hope, as they say, springs eternal). Then, before you knew it, I had gone all the way from Luke Skywalker to Barney Busrider.
I suspect this is a familiar-enough tale for those who have reached a certain age. At some point, most of us choose—or are forced—to let go of our delusions of grandeur. It’s part of the basic story of growing up, a step along the journey toward adulthood.
But it isn’t the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s the start of a new (and truer) character’s development.
Take this “Barney Busrider” character, for instance. To be fair, he isn’t just a boring, balding, middle-aged commuter. He’s a dedicated husband and father who fiercely loves his family. He’s a man who’s spent nearly a decade helping to build a company that works hard to make the world better. He’s a writer of blog posts, letters, and poems (not to mention a couple of unfinished novels and notes from three different tooth fairies). He’s a guy who still chases soccer balls, bangs the drums, and catches waves. And his story arc isn’t finished yet.
He may not be rich or famous or particularly heroic, but I hope he’s the sort of character that you might someday like to meet. And I know that he’s working all the time to get better.
Such work requires each of us to recognize the distance between our actual selves and the heroes we’ve imagined, both fictional and nonfictional. But that’s really just the start. Equally important is recognizing the distance between the person each of us is and any caricature of us—whether we invent it ourselves or have it foisted upon us.
No person is just a persona. Not one of is made of statistics. And the characters that matter aren’t the ones we all imagine—for good, for ill, or even just for fun. The characters that matter are the ones we shape ourselves into. The ones that are made of flesh and blood and work that may take years.
There’s a sense in which I’m Barney Busrider. But there’s also a sense in which I’m all of the other characters listed here, too, as well as several I haven’t yet mentioned or become. Luke and Riggo and Soda and Stewart all run somewhere in my veins. As for your own character, it won’t be determined by any name or label or image. It will be determined by how you shape yourself from a similar messy mix—and by how you do justice to the remarkable mixtures that are other people.
Do your best at both and you’ll be fine. You’ll be prepared for life’s adventures and misadventures. And you’ll connect with other characters who help keep the story interesting. You’ll discover that you’re someone you probably never imagined–and that will be more than okay.