I have a handful of writings I try to re-read every year. One of them is Anne Lamott’s chapter on jealousy from Bird By Bird. Another is Tim Kreider’s essay, “The Referendum,” collected in his marvelous 2012 book, We Learn Nothing.
I don’t think there’s a single piece of writing that better explains the human behavior I witness day-to-day amongst my cohort. (I can’t believe it’s a dozen years old.)
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 problem, as Tim says, is that we only get one shot at life, and once you reach a certain age, every one of your peers gives you a “glimpse of the parallel universes” that would have resulted had you made different choices. (Instagram, for example, is basically an app designed to evoke The Referendum — it hit the app store a year after this essay was originally published.)
Once you read about The Referendum, you see it everywhere: “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.”