Many years ago, I participated in a speed dating event in New York City—one of sixty people meeting in the basement of a Mexican restaurant for a lightening round of 30 three minute dates.
It didn’t go well. Though the event was marketed to people aged 30 to 44, many of the men I met were well into their sixties. Even the sessions with age-appropriate men were lackluster at best.
I was more than halfway though the room when I sat down across from a slender man with dark hair and a mustache. He told me he was from New Jersey and that he was divorced. The separation was not his decision, and he was very angry that fate had brought him to this room.
“I had it all,” he said. “The house, the family, the picket fence. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I don’t want to be here.”
I don’t remember if I said anything during our session—if I did it wasn’t much. Mostly I just let him talk and waited for the moderator to call time.
I thought about this man recently because I’ve been reading a lot of research about speed dating—what makes people attracted to each other in this setting, and what turns them off.
Obviously, this guy was textbook example of what not to do. And the other day while was I was cleaning the bathtub, I started composing a speech to him in my head—the one I wish I had delivered at the time:
“Listen, I get it—it sucks. But if you took a poll of everyone in this room, I’m sure they’d say the same thing. None of us wants to be here. We are all over thirty, all subjecting ourselves to this bizarre and completely artificial ritual. So instead of focusing on how unfairly the world has treated you, why not take an interest in the other people here? Because they are feeling the exact same pain, they have the exact same problem. True, we aren’t all divorced, but we are all single people who would rather not be, and we all have a story (or two, or 20) of pain and heartbreak.
“I understand that you don’t want to be here, but you are here. So why not make the most of it? Even if you don’t find love tonight, you could still have a connection, however fleeting, with another soul who is going through the same thing that you are. That won’t solve your problem, but it might at least break you out of this prison of me-me-me you’ve constructed for yourself.”
I was feeling pretty good about this speech, and as I rinsed off the scrubbing powder I lamented the fact that I didn’t have it together enough to deliver it at the time. Maybe I could have enlightened him!
But then I realized why the thought never occurred to me back then. I was aware of his self-sabotage, but I really wasn’t thinking about him. I was thinking about me. As in: I can’t believe I took a forty-minute subway ride to get here. I can’t believe this is my life.
In other words, I was doing the exact same thing that he was doing—just not aloud. I was smiling and nodding and making some attempt at self-deprecating charm, but inside my internal narration was the same as his. I don’t want to be here. I don’t belong here. Look at all these weirdos. I’m better than this place.
That man became part of a story I told to friends about the horrors of speed dating, and of dating in my thirties in general. Oh, the crap I had to put up with!
My dating days are behind me now, but I still find the subject fascinating because I believe it’s one of the most emotionally raw encounters two people can have—strangers meet, and then try to determine if they can build a life together.
Here’s the lesson I will take from the angry, divorced man: There will always be times when my life doesn’t go the way I want it to. Sometimes it will take a hard left when I want to keep going straight. Other times the road will proceed with blinding sameness when I very much want a thrilling twist.
When I spoke to this man, he was in a very raw place. But I hope that in the subsequent years he learned to open his heart and see that he was not so different from the people around him. I hope he is somewhere at his house in New Jersey—sweeping the floor, wiping down the countertops—remembering the period of his life where he was in so much pain that all he could do was alienate himself even further from the rest of the world.
And I hope that wherever he is, whatever his relationship status, he’s looking back on that time thinking, “I was in a dark place that night, but now I’m okay. Now I’m exactly where I want to be.”