I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Then What I Know Now


Click to view George Burns sing.

It’s often a popular sentiment to imagine “If I had only know then what I know now” and to re-vision how much better that moment in time might have been. We’ve all done it:

If I had known how long it takes to pay off student loans, I might have borrowed less.
If I had known how important networking was, I would have joined a fraternity.
If I had known that tattoo of a naked lady that hula dances when I tighten my fist wouldn’t be as amusing when I was sober . . .
If only I had known, we might say, she was about to move, I would have expressed my undying love.
If only I had known my rock hard abs would be hidden under a middle age paunch, I would have  . . . If only I had known how important commas were I might have listened to my English teacher more. (Well, that one’s just kind of wishful thinking on my part.)
If only I had know the carefree days of youth wouldn’t last, I would have . . .

I often imagine that the best expression of this idea of our lost youth, because that’s what those statements really point to, is expressed in Sonny Throckmorton’s “I Wish I Were 18 Again.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and seems so innocent. Who doesn’t like nostalgia? The older we get, we tend to imagine our youth as a more idyllic, less stressful, more carefree time that we can only appreciate in hindsight. Lord, we might say, I long for the days when I didn’t have to figure out taxes, insurance, house payments, or tuition bills. Those were the days, we say.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about such things this week because my oldest son turns 18 this week. He’s filling out college applications, winding down his high school years, and, perhaps most agonizingly annoying to me, he can eat anything on the planet and never gain a pound.

Yet, I’m darn glad I’m not 18 again.

Throckmorton’s song, so nicely sung by George Burns in the video above, laments that he’ll “never turn the young ladies heads” (not true, of course, the young ladies heads just turn the other away) and that life goes so fast. I don’t disagree, and maybe I’m just not old enough to have forgotten, but the egotistical joy of seeing heads turn our way is, I seem to remember, accompanied by a corresponding neurotic worry about why the heads turned. Do I have a huge pimple? Is my hair sticking up? Is there toilet paper hanging out my pants? Do I know them? Is my zipper open?

While dreams and desires for those things we wish we could do or those things we still want to do might be healthy and a reason to get out of the bed, looking backwards and wishing we had done things differently strikes me as a dangerous reflection of some dissatisfaction with our contemporary space in this world. Regrets and those ever ubiquitous “I wish I had done/known X” statements, implies that we aren’t happy with our current life. Simply put, we can’t go back and change those key moments (because no one says “I wish I had known brown socks didn’t go with blue slacks”–unless you imagine such a mismatch cost you a job) unless we also want to change our current lives. These things are connected. If you turned right way back when, you would have gone a different direction in life. I’m glad I didn’t. My life isn’t perfect. I’ve known illness, loss, and sadness. I’ve been smart and I’ve been a dumb-ass. I’ve helped people and hurt them. But I wouldn’t trade this life for a different one.

And as my son turns 18 and gets ready to move on to the next phase, I hope he never looks back and wishes he had done things differently. This doesn’t mean I want him to adopt some carpe diem philosophy and simply follow the whims and desires of an 18 year old not fully developed frontal lobe. It doesn’t mean he can’t look back and realize he has made mistakes and he should (and hopefully we have taught him to do so) learn from the past. I hope he realizes how the things he did yesterday have led him to where he is at that moment.”Hey,” he might tell himself, “I don’t think I’ll do that again. Drinking a fifth of whiskey in one sitting is a bad idea.”

I want him to be satisfied in the moment and know that those mistakes, those victories, and those moments of decision and indecision have led him to that spot. I want him, simply put, to live in that moment and recognize it is the best moment he’s got. It doesn’t have to be a perfect moment, but I want him to see it as his moment. I’ll be long gone when he’s “three quarters home from the start to the end” but I hope that when he’s there, he’s not looking backward, regretting his past, wishing he had known then what he knows after.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Then What I Know Now

  1. momshieb says:

    Happy Birthday to your son, and best wishes to both of you as you negotiate the next few years of growth and change. Personally, I wouldn’t go back to 18, either. On the other hand, 30 sounds pretty sweet!

  2. What a marvelous reflection. Best wishes to your son, especially for resilience when things go sour for a time.

    The only thing I miss about being 18 was the excellent state of my teeth. (Tell your son not to forget to floss.)

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