The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home. It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.
It’s especially conspicuous among friends from youth. Young adulthood is an anomalous time in people’s lives; they’re as unlike themselves as they’re ever going to be, experimenting with substances and sex, ideology and religion, trying on different identities before their personalities immutably set. Some people flirt briefly with being freethinking bohemians before becoming their parents. Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.
Yes: the Referendum gets unattractively self-righteous and judgmental. Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.
The problem is, we only get one chance at this, with no do-overs. Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control. In his novel about marriage, “Light Years,” James Salter writes: “For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing its opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.” Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.
A colleague of mine once hosted a visiting cartoonist from Scandinavia who was on a promotional tour. My colleague, who has a university job, a wife and children, was clearly a little wistful about the tour, imagining Brussels, Paris, and London, meeting new fans and colleagues and being taken out for beers every night. The cartoonist, meanwhile, looked forlornly around at his host’s pleasant row house and sighed, almost to himself: “I would like to have such a house.”
One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Orpheus and Eurydice — are lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield.