As far back as I can remember as a kid, I always looked forward to turning eighteen years old. I figured that was the absolute pinnacle of living— you’re in your senior year of high school; you’re basically an adult, but have limited responsibilities; you’re the same age as Sam Montgomery in A Cinderella Story — ergo: this must be peak time in terms of existence. So my entire life was building up to my eighteenth birthday and my year of being eighteen, which, you know, turned out to be pretty cool. Not A Cinderella Story-cool; but how could it be? No guy I knew was going to abandon his promising football career and go against his dad’s wishes just to hang out with me. Whatever. It’s fine.
Regardless, turning eighteen was great—I got my driver’s license and got to legally go to my first bar (that’s how Europe operates: you get to do everything, all at once). Being eighteen was awesome, too—I graduated high school, got into college, and got to spend the summer with all my friends and a guy I really liked. Before I knew it, the year was almost over, and it dawned on me that I’d be turning nineteen: an age I hadn’t even planned for or anything. But that’s how calendars work. Each year since then, the first days of September for me have been marked by general uneasiness and intermittent moments of panic.
Today’s my twenty-second birthday, and I’ll be honest: I’m not too stoked. I realize that anyone who’s over the age of twenty-two and reading this is almost definitely rolling their eyes at my naïveté, but you can rest assured that I am well aware of the absurdity in panicking about age in my early twenties. “I hate getting older” is as obvious and clichéd a statement as any—definitely not a hot take. It is, however, one that takes up a lot of space in my head, and my response to those kinds of thoughts is generally to write about them.
I’m analytical to a fault and I always have been. I grew up struggling with anxiety, which, although far more manageable now, is still a part of me. Consequently, rationality and I don’t always see eye to eye, and I’m often pretty ill-equipped to deal with the complex existential questions that come to mind on a pretty regular basis. This isn’t to say that I’m some profound thinker; it just means that I have a really hard time letting go of the thoughts I have about things that are beyond my control.
I get anxious about getting older mainly because it means inevitably giving up the dream of “what could be” and being left with “what is,” in whichever form it comes. There are so many beautiful and exciting things that could happen, but once you’ve lived a moment, that’s that. It’s either good, bad, or not quite either. You can’t go back, only forward, and as time feels like it’s moving faster and the stakes feel like they’re getting higher, I kind of feel like digging my heels in the dirt.
I’m twenty-two and a senior in college, and for the first time in my life there’s no plan. It’s not that I haven’t experienced unexpected change—I’ve had plenty of that. It’s just the first time I’m going to be completely on my own and everything I do is my decision and my responsibility. When you’re a kid, you can talk all kinds of talk about how you’re going to be a famous movie star, an astronaut, or, if you’re my little brother, a stock analyst (not even a joke; it’s been his dream since he was eight). And then there are the non-career ambitions that are just as important to a lot of people: finding love; seeing the world; starting a family. It’s great to have a vision of your future but it’s a whole other thing going out and doing it. I know it’s important to work hard, put yourself out there and seize the opportunities you get, but what if that’s not even enough? Thinking about it too much can make you feel really small and insignificant; like maybe you’re not going to be able to achieve the things you set out to, even if you do everything “right.”
Just like many other young people, I’ve had to learn through experience (and sometimes lack thereof) that my life is not a movie. I am not, nor will I ever be Sam Montgomery in A Cinderella Story. Again: whatever. It’s fine. Every day, I’m confronted more and more with the fact that life might not turn how I imagined it, and that’s okay, because it has to be okay. That’s what I’m learning as I grow up.
Growing up and getting older don’t always happen at the same time, and I think that’s the root of my stress about age. The years are progressing a little faster than my readiness to accept the challenges and expectations that come with being a new age, and that can be really scary. I’m twenty-two, but I’m not totally ready to deal with what it means to be twenty-two. I’m trying to figure it out and feel better about it, and what helps is that I can see a lot of the ways in which I have grown up.
I now know that—surprise—eighteen is not the pinnacle of living, because the pinnacle of living doesn’t actually exist. It does in a two-hour movie, but not in real life. How sad would that be: if you only got one peak era in your entire lifetime? My new theory is that we operate on something more like a highlight reel system. As many wonderful moments are in my past, I also know that there’s a whole lot of time and potential for even better things to happen in the future.
I get better at understanding life and people with every new experience I have, and in order for that to happen, time has to do its thing, and when it does, you get older. It’s a bummer, but it is what it is. I’m also definitely thankful that I no longer have the skewed perception that eighteen-year-olds have it all figured out. Looking back, Sam Montgomery didn’t even have it that great, if you think about it. I mean, I don’t want to get too far into it, but for starters: Austin Ames, cute as he may be, has gone to school with you for, like, four years, and one little mask that covers a third of your face suddenly makes you completely unrecognizable? The boy is clearly an idiot, and you can do better. See, this is the kind of wisdom and maturity I’ve acquired in my old age, and thank goodness for that.