The most difficult phase of life is not when no one understands you, but when you don’t understand yourself.
That quote’s not mine, but I completely endorse it. If it were mine, I might add, “The most difficult phase of truly understanding others is also when you don’t understand yourself.” I would also consider, “If currently in high school, don’t even attempt either of the above.”
When I was seventeen, I vividly remember staring at my reflection in the mirror and literally not recognizing myself. Not because my face had morphed overnight, but because something very fundamental, yet unidentifiable, had changed within me. This terrifying moment of clarity was different from the ones I would later experience when changing careers or having my first baby. When I looked in that mirror, the predominant though was not Jesus, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing; it was Jesus, I have no idea who the hell I am. I’ve only felt that once. It was a startling and depressing moment and one that Jay Hall is in the middle of when we first meet him in Riding with Brighton.
Jay’s feeling what many do when on the cusp on full-fledged adulthood. But unlike most of us, he’s determined to change everything about his life in order to find himself. Actually, determined might not be the best adjective, as Jay discovers when he walks into school that morning and is slapped with his reality:
There wasn’t a unique and interesting person locked in some weird chamber inside of me trying to claw his way out. I was Jay Hall: quintessential popular jock asshole. Despite the fact that I knew there was one thing that separated me from these guys, it didn’t make me different from them. I had no right to even consider that I deserved to be anyone else.
As the day went on, I couldn’t deny the fact that I was trapped—cocooned by a mass of kids living the exact same life as me. The roadblocks were clean-cut, attractive, and popular, and they were as deep as childhood and adolescence combined. The road I was trying to go down was narrow, muddy, and filled with potholes anyway. So why did I even give a shit?
Who can really disagree with his logic? Anyone who’s survived high school knows rocking the boat that contains people who will sit by you in the cafeteria and hang out with you on Friday night is unadvisable. Climbing out of the biggest boat in hopes of finding a much smaller, lonelier one—where hopefully the real you is waiting patiently—is just flat-out insane. Jay gets this. He’s willing to delay his meeting with the real Jay until a more convenient time. If it weren’t for Brighton Bello-Adler, he might postpone indefinitely. But it’s hard to look at the Brightons in our lives and not want what they have.
They’re the rare breed that understands exactly who they are and are living the life they chose for themselves. The ones who don’t care what everyone else is doing or what anyone else thinks, and not because they’re full of angst, but because they’re content. They’ve figured out what they’re passionate about and they’re doing it. They know who and what’s important to them, and they tend to those things because they want to, not because they have to. They might not know where they’re going, but they acknowledge where they’ve been and are relishing the here and now. Brighton is all these things, plus he’s creative, funny, and different. For all these reasons, Jay decides that Brighton is the person he wants be become.
So begins the confusing and awkward journey into Jay’s new life.
Living in Brighton’s world, Jay’s quickly realizing how one dimensional his own is. Truthfully, he never spent much time thinking about anyone but himself. But now he’s thinking about a lot of strange things. Like, how in love that old couple at the drug store are, and how it must suck for that pretty waitress to be dealing with Neanderthals all day. He’s looking at sculptures and wondering about the people who made them; what they were thinking, feeling, and trying to say. He’s at a party with his friends and Brighton’s friends, he’s watching, and he’s seeing the difference between real and superficial. He’s wondering what Brighton’s life has been like and what every little thing on his shelves mean. He’s remembering how much he loved living on the river because he was free to spend his days alone with his thoughts. He’s watching Brighton’s family talk and hang out and just be their unique selves but also pieces of an impossibly tight unit. And he’s realizing how far he’s drifted from his own.
Through Brighton’s perspective, Jay’s beginning to understand that a big, colorful world exists outside his fishbowl, and he’s letting that world open something inside him—hope, excitement, understanding… potential. He’s realizing that no matter who he becomes, there’s a place in the world for him. And even if he loses people in his life, there are so many awesome people he hasn’t even met. He appreciates that everyone is always more than they appear to be and can accept that his own differences will be judged by some but also celebrated by so many others.
Jay’s story begins with a mission to understand himself, but he learns he can’t do that without first understanding the world around him and the people in it. So, I would add to the opening quote, “It’s only when you’re able to see the beauty in others that you can appreciate the beauty they might see in you.” I would also consider, “Even if you don’t have your own personal Brighton, this could definitely happen in high school.”