What was the real reason Paul Ryan is retiring? Fear, right? A fear of losing the Speaker's gavel in a Blue Wave this November, or maybe even a fear that he might actually lose a bid for re-election to his Congressional seat?
Not quite. It was an even more fundamental and, quite frankly, more chilling fear than that: A fear of regret.
"I have been a member of Congress for almost two decades," Ryan said. "My kids weren't even born when I was first elected. My oldest was 13 years old when I became Speaker. Now all three of our kids are teenagers, and one thing I've learned about teenagers is that their idea of an ideal weekend is not necessarily to spend all of their time with their parents.
"What I realize is that if I am here for one more term, my kids will only have ever known me as a Weekend Dad. I just can't let that happen."
Man is by his nature a creature of regret. He regrets what might have been--the list of accomplishments left unaccomplished, the mark on the world left unmarked, the potential that slowly gave way to malaise.
More than anything, though, man regrets the time he spent on what he now knows to be triviality.
If only he had studied harder. If only he had dedicated himself more to his job. If only he had just put in a little more effort. But life has a funny way of interfering, and the wife, the kids, the golden handcuffs to a comfortable house in a comfortable neighborhood with a comfortable job led to a comfortable retirement. Changing the world? Changing diapers took precedence.
But man is by his nature a creature of regret. Even after changing the world, he can look back and wonder what if. And Paul Ryan did. He has the fame and power that other men long for, yet as he looks back at the life he's led, he sees what might have been. What if he hadn't been so driven to run for Congress at age 28? What if he hadn't worked those long hours, slept those nights in the office, given in to the temptation of career success beyond his wildest dreams?
What if he hadn't fulfilled his potential; would he be happier?
I last saw Ryan at the Waukesha County Lincoln Day Dinner in February. I was emceeing and he was, of course, the featured speaker. I have been hosting Republican Party events for years, but this one was special to me. For the first time, I brought my 10 year-old son, Nick. He was learning about government in school and had just taken his fourth grade field trip to the Wisconsin Capitol, so he was excited to go--especially to meet the Speaker of the House.
Naturally, Nick was nervous. This was, as he knew, the third most powerful man in the country. When Ryan saw me, he greeted me with a smile and a handshake, but when he saw Nick, Ryan's eyes lit up and he was more excited than he was all night telling him about his job and the role of the Speaker of the House in the federal government.
Nick said it was the coolest thing ever because, in his words, "that's the most famous person I've ever met."
After dinner, Ryan gave his speech and then hustled out of the building to head home. It was 8:30 at night. He told me he would have until Sunday evening to spend with his family and then he wouldn't see them for another few weeks.
I went home that night and, like I do every night, read Harry Potter to Nick and his younger brother. My wife read to our three year-old daughter in the next room. The next morning, I coached Nick's basketball team.
Paul Ryan was never able to do either. His kids never had a dad who could read to them every night. They never had a dad who could coach their basketball teams. They had a Weekend Dad who they saw on TV more than they saw in the house.
And now they're nearly out of the house. And their Weekend Dad is scared of the regret he'll feel once they've grown up. He's scared that he'll regret missing the games, the science fairs, the big moments in his kids' lives, but he's terrified that he'll regret the little moments; the bedtime stories, the family dinners, the idle moments sitting in the living room doing nothing except spending time together.
This afternoon, I'll be home when the boys get off the bus and drive them to violin lessons. I'll have my daughter in my lap while they play and then I'll coach Nick's soccer practice before reading Harry Potter at bedtime, all the while regretting that I haven't lived a life like Paul Ryan's.
Like nearly every young man, I dreamed of fame and fortune and power and changing the world, but ten years ago, those dreams took a backseat to a dream come true. A national radio show and TV appearances and book deals suddenly didn't seem so important. Changing the world could wait; I had diapers to change.
In that sense, my regret is the inverse of Ryan's. While he regrets a focus on his career, I regret that I haven't focused enough on my career.
But man is by his nature a creature of regret. He loathes it, he fears it, and he will do anything to ensure that he doesn't have it. But he always does, no matter what he does. He can conquer the world but regret missing what happened at home. He can stay home and regret not conquering the world.
But the thing about regret is that there's time to mitigate it. But Ryan sees that time growing short as his kids grow up, and he knows that now is the time that he doesn't want to regret missing.