On the Table in the Sun
“Why don’t we sit over there?” she innocently suggested.
Approaching the cafe parklet on a sunny, frigid Washington DC Saturday, we nuzzled into the seats in the sun that seemed too good to be true. Just a few tables were outside, so it seemed like good luck for us to have no competition for one of two tables in the sun outside, foregoing our option on the tables in the shade on our way.
I would never have made such a choice. For most of my life, I have been fine with “good enough.” For example, if a car dealership were sold out of all the black-colored sedans, sure, I am perfectly happy with the charcoal grey version instead. If the restaurant was completely out of the fish of the day, sure I would eat chicken instead. If I ordered some clothes and they didn’t fit quite right, I’d turn a blind eye, and think sure, this shirt is good enough, it’s fine. In other words, I didn’t really care.
I have examined where this comes from. It’s some part youngest-child, where what I wanted didn’t often matter to those around me or I was too uninformed to make a credible contribution to the conversation. It’s some part a mistaken interpretations of books I have read that suggest it’s good to have discomfort in your life because it makes you stronger, which led me away from having strong preferences or feeling disappointment. It’s some part being easy-going, not wanting to feel negative feelings of not getting what I actually want, and some degree of deriving happiness from someone else’s fulfillment, keeping my own wants minimized in order to leave space for them (“What do you want to eat tonight?” “How about Thai [again]?” “Sure!”).
It was only recently that after more than 30 years of life I realized the folly of this.
I was not living. To not have preferences about where to go on vacation, how a weekend will be spent, what one’s full life looks like — is to forego making desire a reality. I used to take pride in “how little I needed” and that I just cared “about the big picture” and dedicated all of my energy to that like where I lived, what sort of material security and comfort we had, and the ability to focus on the handful of interests that truly were my favorites like reading and writing, spending minimal time on the rest. I considered the rest “noise”. But now I realize that the “noise” is actually every day life.
We sat down at a DC tavern, cozied under the heat lamps in 20 degree weather, to have cocktails and dinner. As I drank my Ranch Water cocktail, I thought “I don’t like this.” As I ate my lobster risotto, I thought “I like this.” and thought about how the last time I ordered, I got some monstrosity of bread, cheese, and ingredients I didn’t understand and didn’t like because I thought “it sounded cool” when I saw it on the menu. But this time, I liked the meal, and thought, “This could be my regular thing.”
Developing preferences as an adult can be difficult. We might have learned a behavior to suppress them, and even think that doing so is a strength rather than a mistake. Asserting preferences will lead to conflict with partners, family, and friends. But not doing so risks a life well-lived. It felt liberating to realize that I would now also go out of my way for the table in the sun, make a recognition to myself that I might have a favorite meal in the risotto, and risk some disappointment in search of satisfaction.