Last year I celebrated my 30th birthday. The last few years have been
interesting, because I've felt myself moving to that inflection point
in life where you stop thinking about adulthood as something that will
eventually happen to you, and you start thinking about it as something
that is happening. The strangest part of getting here is looking
back at people in their teens and early 20s wrapped up in self-doubt and depression and angst, and knowing deep down that none of these
things are ultimately worth worrying about. Does (s)he really like me?
Am I cool enough to hang out with them? What will I do for a living?
Why am I still a virgin? What if I'm just a geek? Will I be able to
support myself? Am I living up to people's expectations?
The good news for all you teen and 20-somethings is: You don't need to worry so much.
Or to put it another way: Everything is going to be fine.
The bad news is: You're not going to believe me.
Remembrance of Things Past
I remember being 25 and going back to visit my cousin in college. He
was attending the same university that I and my then girlfriend, now
wife, had attended. That night we all went to a party at one of the
dining clubs. We were astounded: the level of personal and
sexual tension was so thick that you could feel it drag around
you like fog as you moved around the room. These people were decked
out, dancing to the band and drinking watery beer like any other
college party. They appeared to be having a great time. The had
smiles on their faces. But we could feel it like a background hum in
the air, like a telepath that can't keep the strong thoughts out: does
he like me? Am I cool enough? Will I finish my thesis? What will I
do with my life? They were sailing through their college years,
appearing to have a great time of it. But a lot of them were scared.
We had been there, doing the same thing in that same room, only a few
years ago ourselves. But it felt entirely different then, or at
least that's the way we remembered it; we're in a different place in our lives now. We tried to put ourselves back
into that mode--we could almost get there when we tried, like a smell
that triggers a familiar memory of you're-not-sure-exactly-what, an
enforced deja vu. I know I experienced this. We feel an urge to
stop people, to shake them and tell them to quit worring about their
lives and relationships, and to just start enjoying them. (Just ask
her to dance, what's the worst that can happen?) We want to stop the
band and grab the microphone and tell the crowd that all the things
they've been turning over and over in their heads are going to sort
themselves out one way or another. Maybe not the way they're
planning, maybe worse, maybe better, but some way. And when all the
hopes and uncertanties solidify into realities, you look back on the
sum of the worry and frustration and it seems that you dreamed it,
that it was something that must have happened to you but that you can't
recall actually happening to you.
Sibyl, What Do You Want?
There is a trope in literature and mythology that the prophet is condemned
to know the future but is not believed by anyone. Priam's daughter
Cassandra told everyone that Troy was going to fall, but she was
cursed by Apollo so that no one believed her.
Part of the wisdom that starts to gel with a little bit of your
adult life behind you is that now that you've been through the dress
rehearsal you have a pretty good idea of how to nail the
performance, but you've already done it. That thing you just
did, when you made a few wrong turns and mistakes and bad choices,
that was it. You begin to realize that this understanding is
actually the fabric of wisdom: the knowledge that if you just focus
on the here and now and dance when the band is playing, the paths
will unfold themselves in front of you.
Part of the joy, in fact, is being given the chance to choose among them.
But you can't tell anybody, because they have to go through the
same thing to understand it; the only way for them to really come to
believe it is to do the worrying and suffering and choosing, and then
see it all in retrospect, when it's too late. It's maddening.
We all lead lives of infinite possibility, but we know from
mathematics that some infinities are bigger than others1. The same
unanswered questions that sometimes fill your life with fear, uncertainty and doubt
mean that you can pack your bags tonight, get on a plane to
Timbuktu and start a new life. So can I, but it's just a little bit
harder once you're married and have a career in full swing and own
your own place. It's all about lightness and weight. Friends of ours
are even starting to have babies now, which limits you even more--in
the end you trade one kind of possibility
for another: to create a new life and help it to develop and mature. (Or not, and
spend the additional disposable income on food and wine and Really
The river of life moves you through these phases even if you don't
want it to. All you can really do is hang on, dip your hair in the
water and enjoy the ride. Take my word for it.
Even though you won't.
1See the continuum hypothesis