I almost forgot I was turning 20. About a week before my birthday, I got a message from my sister asking me what I wanted for a present. My initial reaction was of surprise. First, surprise that my birthday was so soon, and then surprise that I could have almost forgotten it. My next thought was that the only thing I wanted for my birthday was more time.
I initially thought of this as simply wanting more time to get everything I want to do done. I’m at that point in the semester when I have to choose between finishing a novel for an English class and getting a physics problem set done, or giving an essay my best effort and getting enough sleep to make it through my morning lecture.
But I think I also meant that I wanted more time before I turn 20. More time to carry the label of “teenager” as a crutch to justify my incompetency at keeping my bed made and applying for jobs, or time management and learning how to drive a car. When you’re a teenager, even at 19, it still feels okay to be mystified by the nuances of adulthood, to claim ignorance. But from one day to the next, it feels like that’s all taken away. Suddenly, that label disappears and you’re just a person, who, in theory, should have their shit together after two decades on earth.
And, well, that’s scary because I really don’t feel like I have my shit together. I have different feelings on what I want to major in and what I want to do with my life every week, and feel continuously overwhelmed by things that I think I want to be doing, but am never quite sure if I actually love or just think I’m supposed to love. And at 19, well, that seems a lot more excusable, it feels like there’s just so much more time to figure it all out… until your sister reminds you that in eight days you’re turning 20.
Of course, the difference between your last day being 19 and your first day being 20 isn’t really that significant. But there’s something about that zero at the end of that number that evokes this sense of the movement of life… you can’t help but remember that only a few years ago, you were 10, and when you look at the pictures you realize you were really small. And if you can change that much in the last 10 years… what will you look like at 30? At 40? Will you feel the same inside, or will everything be different? And it’s hard to know which is scarier… if you’ll become someone you don’t recognize at all or just stay the same, someone who’s kind of making it up as you go along hoping things will figure themselves out later. It’s terrifying to think of all the decisions our future selves will make for us. Growing up means that you have to change… but what if I find out later down the line that who I grow into isn’t someone that my current me would like? How do I know what my 10 year old self would want of me now? The dreams I had then aren’t the realistic goals I’ve given myself now… should that be seen as defeat, or maturity?
I guess the truth is that those questions will always be the same… whether I’m turning 20 or 30 or 50, the future will always be unknown and the path to the present will always be filled with doubt. But I guess growing up is learning how to ask those questions, and deal with the fact that there aren’t any answers, and to somehow come to terms with that.
We come to college to learn about the world, but maybe the best thing we can try to do is to learn a bit more about ourselves, and how we fit into that world. Not in the concrete ways we tend to focus on, not the “what kind of job will I get?” or the “how can I best make the world better?” but to find out how we… survive. And maybe the best way to start figuring that out is to admit that we don’t know, and probably never will.
(Photo courtesy of emma.kate via Flickr Commons)