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OPINIONS

Deciphering twenty-something angst: a two-part analysis

Part One

College is kind of a big deal. I feel like we don’t talk about that enough. I mean, being on my own doesn’t just mean I have to do my own laundry (well damn, I can’t even do that). See, my friend and I got into a conversation about this. We deduced being on your own means that you are solely responsible for all of your emotional baggage. You become the ambassador for “all that shit back home.”

When I was in high school back in Connecticut, sure, certain aspects of life kind of sucked. But at least I could draw a distinction between me and the problems that were causing my misery. Now that I’m on the other side of the country, surrounded by people who know absolutely nothing about where I come from, all of the bad stuff lives in the abstract. In their physical absence, I carry the facts of my life around like parcels of luggage, internalizing the external, assimilating it to my self-identity. I suppose this is why the sordid details of our past, when we leave the nest, tend to coalesce into shame.

This is why, I suspect, we evolve into guarded creatures, shameful of external circumstances beyond our control simply because we have internalized them and taken on the burden of their memory. That said, I think these very unsightly details can be sources of strength and courage. You just have to separate yourself from them, treat them as things you have overcome and not things weighing you down, which isn’t easy when all you have at your disposal is vague recollection.

Part Deux

All of this is very well said in the abstract, like most things. The truth is, I haven’t quite figured out the proper way to regard my unbecoming origins. Even when I was in high school, I was very guarded about my upbringing, so it’s not like sweet old Connecticut is the answer. Who knows – life is confusing. (Duh, you say.) You’re led to believe your teenaged years are the most baffling period of your life, and therefore pine for the days when you’re 20 and you’ll have yourself all figured out. As if.

Your twenties are waaay more confusing. At least in high school I had a purpose (get into college) and could convince myself that I would resolve all my insecurities and concerns in that mythical place. In college, you don’t have an excuse. I mean, I guess some people just set up a new goal: grad school, or a nice job. I asked my dad, a doctor, how he dealt with all of this confusion when he was my age. He confided to me that to deal with that massive uncertainty, he put his nose in his books. He studied relentlessly and got by on the contrived belief that becoming a doctor, professional and successful, would bring him inner peace and security. He is 65 now, and wise and truthful. When he talks, a wistful gaze slips over his eyes. He wishes he had become an English teacher.

To think: my father, an English teacher. Had he confronted that confusion, done the painful job that many avoid of asking himself what he really wanted to do with his life, would he be lecturing to high school students in a tweed jacket? Would he be more content with himself? Would his eyes be twinkling, beset with conviction, instead of pathos for what could have been? No doubt he is happy, and successful; he has helped untold thousands of people in their most endangered states. I am proud of him, and perhaps his choice of career is extraordinarily minor compared to how he has chosen to raise his family–and here, he has not gone wrong. Maybe angst is just something that dissolves of its own accord; maybe there are others ways to affirm oneself outside of the framework of a career. I suspect that regret is inevitable and unavoidable no matter what you do, and thus indicting my father for his decision is unfair to him. We all carry regrets. It’s what you do moving forward that matters and for as long as I have observed him, my dad has stayed true to himself.

I too have regrets, and that makes me nervous I’m going to do something that leaves me with still more. Doing the most generic and socially acceptable thing seems like the less risky and therefore the most attractive. After all, I am plagued with countless uncertainties about my choice of major, my career, my likelihood of success, the “right” path I should take from here on out. There are so many possibilities that I am paralyzed with choice. Like every human being on the planet, my greatest wish is to be happy. Like every student here, I want to be successful. In a world of infinite choice, the road in front of me looks like a minefield.

One misstep and I’m out.  It’s so tempting to avoid all this, to put my head down and tally off the days until graduate school, and then after that an entry-level job, and then a better job, and so on and so forth. But I fear that I will end up on the other side regretful. Perhaps I will have a mid-life crisis because I didn’t take the time to figure out what I truly wanted to do with my life when I was 20.

I am confused. I know this is normal because my friends are too, and because I have done a lot of Google searches about this. A very big part of me wants to run home to my room and slam the door on the howling world. It will always be there, though. Ah, forget trekking to Mount Doom. To take a step into the vicious wind, and stay there – to face an unkind world and endure it until we claim our place in it – is a feat of ungodly courage. One could spend the rest of her days in the Shire or a decent job, pretty content. Beneath it will be an awful fear. An awful fear of the world beyond she has never had the courage to know.

  • Sharon

    Thanks for writing this. I think it takes a lot of courage to declare your angst in such a public setting. Like you said, many of us go through this, and I’m still in the process. I grew up in a place where it was very easy and important to do what I was supposed to do, and when I got to college I found that I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or was good at. The question then was how can I use this freedom as a living agent? How do I answer questions like what major I’m going to choose, and why?
    On Google and in books people say do what you love, do what you’re good at. What do you do when you don’t know what you love? Have no real idea of what you’re good at? How do you answer questions like why does it matter that I was alive? What might it matter if tomorrow I was not? And amongst the soul-searching, we have school. A terrible hectic schedule affording little space to reflection, thinking, and relaxation. With our noses constantly to the grindstone, it is so difficult to pull back, reach up and take a fresh breath.
    I found a tentative answer after undergoing a personal-growth program called the Bold Academy (www dot boldacademy dot com) last summer, which helps young people find inner clarity. I learned I wanted to live authentically, as myself, and not as someone else based on other people’s expectations. Then it was a process of facing the inauthentic elements of my personality and being that I had so long accommodated. I learned I wanted to live intentionally and with purpose, and trust that every step brought new realizations and changed circumstances, and that I didn’t really know who I was going to be in 8 years, or how the world might have changed. I decided I wanted to go back to Stanford and finish my degree, because that would open more doors, create more possibilities. So I did.
    But back to school I came and how I struggled with upper-level classes that contributed to that degree, and how tired and stressed I became, all the time. I let go of some very good habits that helped me be happy. At my lowest points I wondered about how difficult life was. Where is the passion-driven energy that I used to have, chasing ephemeral goals that I didn’t really set for myself? To live intentionally is tiring- you keep having to ask yourself, why am I doing this? Why does it matter? Why, why, why? You have to take responsibility for those decisions, the burdens of success and failure no matter how those terms are defined for you. Sometimes you have to explain them to other people because we live in a society. And the future seems so unbearably murky and uncertain, and the world’s problems intractably complex and difficult. Traveling and talking to people has shown me that there are so many ways to live, infinitely unimaginable because our experiences necessarily spans only a tiny portion of space and time. How do we choose? How do we know? Is there a right answer for each of us?
    And now my working answer is that, yes, there is. There are a span of right answers in the here and now. Sometimes they are harder to see than the range of wrong answers. Every decision resets the process. I matter because each of us is inherently valuable, and intangibly connected to those around us. Sometimes my gut – my subconscious – knows things before my conscious mind picks up on them, and finding what I love is one of those things. So I want to learn to be more self-aware, not just on the cognitive level, but also the physical, spiritual and emotional.
    To get by, day-to-day, I seize opportunities to be grateful and to love, to derive academic fulfillment and square my shoulders to difficulties that will only make me better, and to structure my environment in as healthful a way as possible. I also see that I need and crave more space to grow as a person. I – my self-identity – is the only thing that is constant from college and beyond. These skills, these mad classes, these professors, these jobs, these networks; all of them are contingent. And so I am going abroad again, seeking that clearer space around me, hoping to reconnect with who I am and who I want to be.
    We each find our ways to grow up.

  • on success

    I think the hardest first step is to stop measuring oneself by, and seeking to fulfill, what others consider success. That’s very hard because by “others” I mean not just the world at large, but also parents, friends, and teachers.

    Like many students, I think, I spent my undergrad days working very hard, just as I had in high school, to get good grades in a useful major. That is not a bad idea. I still maintain that at the least, one should minor in a vocation-oriented subject. It is not wrong to accumulate skills to fall back on when a paycheck is necessary.

    Once college is over, you’re truly on your own for the first time. Grades and so on no longer compel you to do things from one day to the next. (An exception is a professional degree immediately out of college; but an MS, for example, is little different than a BS, so one might as well as think of “college” as whatever extends through the end of course-based learning. PhD students quickly discover that good grades are hardly the goal, though decent ones are necessary; research is what matters.) The process of adjusting to that new way of living takes a few years, I think. As you muscle along, you start to think about and question how the world works. Some people are probably fine with it as it is: get a good job, work up the career ladder, get a fancy car and house, and so on. But some people discover they are not.

    I found that the most freeing realization I came to is that the world is very broken. We humans are destroying it in a way that is clearly and appallingly tragic if you look at it for what it is. Most first-world humans, I think, are protected from the full image of the tragedy by their normative way of thinking: they see that the BP spill is an ecological tragedy, but they don’t see that the daily first-world way of living is, too.

    And this is the thing: a lot of parents and teachers have a very normative view of the world. I found the courage to put aside their measures of success when I realized that these very good people are nonetheless *very wrong* for the simple reason that their measures of success entail the carrying on, or even exacerbation, of these daily tragedies.

    Hence I was left free to formulate my own measures of success.

    No doubt some or many readers find my comments to be the ranting of a minor lunatic, but I think my main message applies to everyone: Figure out whose measures of success you’ve been following. Decide critically the merits of these measures. On the basis of this analysis, reject or retain each measure separately. Finally, formulate your own new ones. I think you will find that formulating your own is much easier that you might initially think; all it really requires is a careful study of your values: for success, in the end, is very little else than living in accordance with your values.

  • Steven

    Personally, I think taking time OFF of school and not being in any huge rush to finish can do wonderful things for your feelings about life. Others have shared their story on “the time off project” page here http://j.mp/z2GswK

  • Life Coach

    “No doubt some or many readers find my comments to be the ranting of a minor lunatic.”

    Indeed. Go make bombs in a cabin somewhere.

  • on success

    Hi. I don’t want to be argumentative (especially since this is getting away from the point of the opinion piece), but I hope you don’t mind my saying that your comment, while funny, misses something that I think is important.

    To be as precise as I can be: First, it’s a fallacy to conflate /extreme views/ and /extreme actions/. Second, in any case, it is a fallacy to imply that extreme actions entail violence. There is a long and noble history of extreme nonviolent protest by those whose views differ from those of most people.

    Indeed, truly living according to one’s values — be they informed by religion, environmentalism, and so on — requires living in a way that is extreme in that it deviates substantially from what is normal. But, again, just to make this absolutely clear: that sort of extreme living has /nothing/ to do with violence. Indeed, it quite likely requires the opposite: no harming of animals, no taking advantage of other people, etc.

  • Hungry Joe

    Thin skin

  • Destroy to Rebuild

    I’ve thought a bit about this, and I agree with a lot of the stances you took in the original post. That said I disagree with you on whether violence/destruction is needed.

    I don’t have much hope for mankind. My one hope was education, but now even that is falling into the hands of corporate lust. As long as the 99% is content with their iPhones and Big Macs and
    reality television–using these modern technologies like one uses, say,
    morphine–there is little hope. Nonviolent protest will not awake these
    addicts from their comas.

    I think destruction is the optimal way forward- ideally no one would die (the major perpetrators would be imprisoned until they died) but some collateral damage is inevitable. Does that mean I will go bomb these places? No- I’m no hero. A hero has the bravery to do whatever it takes.

  • pol_incorrect

    This from somebody who is almost 40,

    1- Your twenties, although you might not appreciate it now, it’s a magical time. Sure it feels like a continuation of puberty in many ways, but it’s a period of time when you still have the energy to think big and have none of the impediments that you had earlier (parents supervision) nor those that are likely to come later (family, job obligations, etc).

    2- For those who go to college, the twenties means also the transition to the real world. Once you accept that, you’ll soon understand that the real world is more interesting than fiction any time.

    3- What really sucks is when you pass the age of 30. So make sure you enjoy these few years during which you have the freedom and the money to do whatever you please without adult interference (remember, you are the adult now).