Last weekend, I said goodbye and good riddance to my twenties. Officially.
In truth, I’ve felt thirty for a few years now. I still feel legitimately different today, now that it’s actually true, but what I mean to say is that I’ve already spent a fair amount of time, heading into this touchstone point in adulthood, reflecting upon what I’ve learned about life over the past ten year or so.
Still, I thought it would be a good idea to put some of these lessons in writing. I’ve lately been noticing the advantages of return reflection. It never occurred to me in the past that there are benefits to doubling back and revisiting certain thoughts, feelings, memories — and the conclusions I formed about myself based on them.
In retrospect, it appears I was too busied by the “imperative” to keep moving, during my twenties — often for the express purposes of providing myself with an excuse for not being able to stand still — to really get a full picture of what was going on in my life. But also, well, I was still young and stupid. And by that I mean that I thought I knew everything, when in reality I just know most things.
Kidding. Sort of. It’s actually an important distinction, the difference between genera knowledge and specific certainty. We can get far in life by knowing most of what there is to know about any one thing. However, worlds can also collapse in the space between knowing something completely and almost knowing it completely. Just ask your nearest brain surgeon.
Of course, there are even levels between these two admittedly high-aspiration examples. So enough with the jokes and preamble.
Here is a sampling of some of the larger lessons I learned on my way to thirty. Some may seem familiar, because there are other posts out there, written by other people who also turned thirty and felt a similar need to get public about it. I’m sharing anyway to prove there’s some universality here, and also because there’s always something different that we as individuals can add to a story to make it partially ours even in its widespread sameness. And that, in turn, can lead to all of us feeling more connected. What? Yes.
1. Love trumps all.
If you know me even a little bit, and/or if you’ve read more than a couple of posts here (such as this one), it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is the first and biggest lesson I felt moved to share. It unfortunately seems to get easier to forget, as we get older and thus closer towards death (which seems a lonely solo act), that love is the reason why we do everything that we do. Especially in an America where work and commerce continue to reign supreme, we seem on average to give up more and more of what we love — and to increasingly accept conditions that take us away from who we love — much more often than we’d like. That is, if we thought about this often enough.
Well, I’ve thought about it. I work on honoring this truth, every day, nowadays. Love withers without attention and care, and some essential part of us withers with it when we fail to give both these things as a primary imperative. And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about romance. It does no good to force romance or to substitute something or someone else in it’s name when patience or self-actualization is actually the thing that is called for. Love, obviously, can and is also about family, friends, and how we treat our own selves.
Not everyone grows up with a healthy or full relationship with love. And it’s too big a thing to handle fully before adulthood, in a way. So, I’m glad I spent much more of my twenties loving and learning to love myself. It’s helped formed a foundation for an overall happiness in my life that I’m able to grip now but during those earlier years didn’t know I could build and then stand upon.
2. I’m not perfect (or invincible).
It’s been well established, for a long time now, that men and women in their twenties usually carry with them an aura of invincibility. They have enough of youth’s plasticity left in them for this presumption to appear warranted, most of the time. A twenty-year-old simply bounces back, physically and energetically, from injury and duress (emotions are a different story, in my experience).
But a byproduct of this attitude is that people in their twenties tend to think they can do no wrong. Perhaps this is also a generational thing, more aptly ascribed to today’s twenty-somethings, but I’m not sure complete responsibility for that can be placed on generational characteristics.
Either way, I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t value in feeling invincible and perfect, or perfectly right. The primary advantages to these qualities is that they engender action, which is sorely needed in the world at all times but particularly right now and particularly from the young.
As I’ll argue soon, though, action alone is often not enough, when it comes down to it, in terms of how it affects our lives as well as our surrounding societies. A twenty year old who can’t understand why his or her actions are not getting the deserved results — or why everything isn’t going perfectly — jeopardizes future growth and very good (if not perfect) results by failing to acknowledge the reality of such a situation. The sense of rightness and of unending possibility is normal and healthy and can be harnessed. But it’s not the end of the game if and when results don’t match expectations.
It took me a fair while to truly understand this. To a degree, I’m still struggling to believe it. But we have to fail to gain access to growth and progress, in all aspects of life.
3. Failure is very important
Failure is life’s way of forcing us to reconcile with the reality of our imperfections and the results of our imperfect actions and reactions. In a way, nothing we ever do will end in anything but failure.
What? Hear me out.
If you’re anything like me — and if you’re reading this you must be at least a little like me — you spend at least some of your time, from day to day, forming expectations. You probably started reading this post with some expectation of what you were going to or wanted to read. Perhaps I’ve already failed you. Or, more likely, perhaps I’ve failed you but at the same time gave you something else — which you weren’t expecting.
I’ve noticed that reality has a way of reckoning with everyone, no matter who they are and/or what they’ve done in life. Deny or explain away the existence of failure in your life for too long, and at some point some other part of that life will fail on you completely, perhaps to your surprise. In choosing to deny that we’ve failed we are consequently choosing to deny reality. This causes a drift farther away from potential positive change. It also lengthens the process for achieving whatever opposite defines success.
I have seen people of all ages become unhinged by this truth. However, I think, if we’re talking what is reasonably healthy, it’s around this time in life where I am…when we should be beginning to acknowledge how we have failed, what we have learned from these failures, and what we want to do next to take advantage of these lessons and start again with a further emphasis on intention and with the benefit of experience to lean on.
It could be argued that our twenties are for failing our way to a place wherein we can begin to pursue true success. Whether this is true or not depends on the attitude we take in the face of failure, and what we do from there and how we do it.
4. There’s time. Nothing is set is stone.
I spent too much time in my twenties worrying about what I “needed to do” before I turned thirty. I spent so much time worrying about it, that I almost failed to realize just how much I have accomplished up to this point, and how much I have grown as a person, despite these fears and anxieties. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
It’s still difficult to remember, some days. It can become especially difficult to remember if you’ve experienced the sort of trauma I experienced several years ago. My light brush with death in the early years of my twenties had a doubly poisonous effect on most of the rest of them. Having to acknowledge the fragility of life, when I was “supposed” to be feeling invincible, left me feeling constantly scared that I was going to die before I experienced or accomplished anything that I wanted for myself in life. This fear, ironically, led me to grip life more tightly than is probably healthy, while I was at the same time I tried to prove to myself that I wasn’t scared by continuously going out and getting drunk and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
It took some failure and some pain and some therapy and a lot of time, but I’ve learned to let go — a little bit. Sometimes. I’m most likely not going to die today, or tomorrow — and, statistically speaking, neither are you. Does this mean the fear isn’t real, or shouldn’t be respected? Not at all. It’s just the truth. Another truth? Even if we do perish, there most likely will not have been a damn thing we could have done to prevent it.
We can only do what we can do, today, and we can’t extend our influence into the past or quite that far into the future. So why try? Why obsess?
5. Things are simpler than we’d like to admit or believe.
Complication is the “best friend” I used to hang out with in order to prevent myself from beginning down the path of creating the life I truly wanted (the path that I feel I am now on, for the most part). Anything can be made complicated, with time, if there’s fear in you. And there’s fear in all of us.
The formation of “perfect” expectations goes both ways — towards nightmares as well as dreams. Much in life is actually simpler than we make it.
Hungry? Eat. Don’t want to ingest too many calories, or too much fat or sugar? Eat something healthy. Worried about eating too close to dinner? How could putting healthy food in your body ruin anything?
More likely, if you don’t eat when you’re randomly hungry, abstinence will backfire. Maybe the hunger takes over at the grocery store on the way home from work, and you spend too much money on more food than you need. Or maybe something stressful occurs, and you end up eating anyway — but you choose something that’s not healthy. Or you meet with the same result because you end up meeting that hunger again hours after dinner, also known as the time when the cookie vampire comes out to hunt.
The above is a very mundane example but that’s part of my point. Add a day’s worth of mundane examples of simple problems that were addressed with a series of complicated anti-solutions (excuses) and what do you get? Unhappiness.
Dissatisfaction. That could have been avoided.
Inaction. That is leaving you exactly where you were the day before, perhaps in a place you don’t want to be.
Contrarily, to keep the example going — sometimes a problem is as simple as saying: “Fuck it. I’m eating a Snickers.”
Or, to double back to positive action, while at the same time increasing the scope: “Fuck it. I’m completely unhappy. I need to change my life. After I eat this Snickers.”
6. Broken things can be fixed.
I can’t speak for everyone, here. What I will say is that I think many of us enter and drift (or barrel) through our twenties in continuous combat with a not-so-sneaking suspicion that something is wrong with us. Why can’t I succeed? Why aren’t I happy? Why do I feel this way?
Coping mechanism’s vary, as does the timeline during which we can be gripped by such thoughts and feelings, which will never quite go away (as far as I know and have been told) but can be better managed as we get older and more honest and more willing to deal with the reality of what, say, a sense of brokenness signifies in the grand scheme of our lives — as well as how it might affect us.
The honesty part of it was big for me. I knew for a long time that I was a little damaged. The symptoms were readily apparent, even if I hadn’t addressed the causes. I was too angry and too quick to run from anything that might hurt me or expose my pain. In my ignorance, I even got very creative with how I managed to hold on desperately to brokenness in spite of my sincere, deep desire to be fixed. When you know you’re broken, at least you know something, with certainty. There is comfort in having reasons for all that you don’t like about your life. Salvation can be scary. It’s an unknown. It can seem impossible, or appear as an inevitable disappointment, when you’re looking up at it from the depths of hopelessness.
Acknowledging a need for help has to come first. Then, there’s the asking. Finally, as much as might perhaps wish to avoid it, there’s the action that can only come from the broken individual.
I’m just glad I ended up spending a fair portion of my twenties gathering the courage to face this lesson and embrace its possibilities. It’s an ongoing process, but even as I write this I can’t imagine where I would be if I didn’t show some faith in both the real possibility of redemption and in myself as a man possible of changing.
7. Character is king.
This isn’t a reference to writing or filmmaking, although there’s definitely some overlap. What I mean to say is that, in line with the above, I’ve learned that it’s more important to have and exhibit true character than it is to succeed in terms of monetary gain or socially-approved and accepted positions of power and influence.
It’s never been clearer in our society that all it takes to become wealthy is a deficiency of character and a willingness to hurt and/or take advantage of other people. This is not the only way to become wealthy — just the fastest and the most assured. And in an increasingly hyper-connected and globalized world, it’s never been easier to run away from the repercussions of such a decision, which can be pushed to a distance by various levels of remote-responsibility, accomplished via the “normal” evolution of growth bureaucracy.
What does this have to do with character? Everything.
As has been partially discussed already, the compromises we make in life invariably demand their day. We all do what we feel we have to do to survive, or thrive, or stay safe. I’m not here to judge anyone — not even those who have “succeeded” in the above terms. Yes, hurting others is wrong. But there’s also an argument to be made that it’s also wrong to allow yourself to be continually hurt. Also, I deliberately chose a generalized, extreme example. As with anything, there are shades of gray.
Basically, what I am saying is that we become what we do. This made it important for me, over the past several years, to take my time finding out what works for me and what doesn’t. It was a fuck of a bumpy road at times but I’m glad I took it. And in some ways I think I’m still on it and always will be.
8. Character is solidified by action.
I’m repeating myself but this is important: We become what we do. Which can just as easily be redefined as “nothing”.
Life is delicate, as we’ve established. It can be easy to play by the rules and go along with what everyone else is doing, and I would encourage anyone who’s actually okay with that, at bottom, to seize the opportunity to live a relatively serene life. Just try not to hurt too many people and be sure you’re being honest with yourself and don’t forget to love — if I may be so bold as to make these demands.
Contrarily, it can be hard to break rank and pursue something that’s mysterious even to you, despite a gravitation towards whatever that thing might be.
For me, it was storytelling. Writing. Filmmaking. Lately, some other forms of expression as well. The road to actualization began for me, years ago, in pursuing this twin dreams.
But I was infrequently happy before I was frequently “working”. I add the scare quotes because, now, on good days it doesn’t feel like work. This never would have happened, though, if I didn’t risk myself, repeatedly and more fully over time. The journey, as they say, is and will continue to be the destination.
Much of what’s in these most recent paragraphs is inspired in part by my favorite film, The Hustler. By this clip, in particular. I leave you with it. Thanks for reading.
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