If all goes according to plan, this article will come out just shy of my 28th birthday. Since Pamela Druckerman is enjoying a lot of attention for her recent New York Times piece “What You Learn in Your 40s,” I thought I’d piggyback on her success and add my own two cents on what you learn in your 20s.
First and foremost, things you thought only happened to “other people” can very well happen to you. When I was 25 and sitting under fluorescent lighting in a stark office across from a geneticist who informed me—much too blithely for my taste—that my “fetus” was incompatible with life, I remember thinking: “But…but this kind of thing happens to other people. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen to me!” This was the first, rude awakening that expecting tragic circumstances to affect only other people is neither realistic nor very charitable of you. Why do you deserve to lead a more charmed life than someone else? News flash: you don’t. I don’t recommend walking around with the specter of doom and gloom at your elbow while expecting tragedy to befall you at every turn, but it would behoove you to remember that you are part of that amorphous “other people” to someone else. You are not untouchable.
Friends you thought you would hold dear forever turn out to be people you actually don’t like very much. It turns out that people who were wonderful companions to cry with over your crush ignoring you at shul and to watch MTV with don’t necessarily make mature, kind-hearted, snarky and sensitive friends with whom you particularly enjoy spending time. This is a sobering realization at first but, eventually, you realize it’s only life.
Nobody–and I mean, nobody–leads a completely charmed life, no matter how much Facebook makes it appear that they do. You can have the most beautifully-staged photographs and humblebrag statuses–“I can’t believe Columbia’s PhD programs thinks I’m smart enough to get in!”or “I’m really concerned that if people keep commenting on my gorgeous kids, they might get a complex”—and then one day, your spouse is arrested for insider trading. Or something.
It gets just a little harder to hoist yourself up off the floor, or circle the mall with the vigorous sense of purpose you had just a few years earlier. You begin to get inklings of what your body might be capable of down the line, and when this happens, you toss back a few more Proactiv calcium chews, just to be on the safe side.
You are not responsible for the happiness of other people. You can always love your parents, but you are not responsible for tailoring your life to fit their needs and aspirations. You can hope that the lonely men who message you on Facebook with ill-conceived pickup lines at all hours of the night find the companionship that we all deserve, but you are not obliged to be that for them. You can block them, and they’ll probably be just as emotionally stable (whatever level of stability that might be).
Things that once terrified you immeasurably–like merging lanes on the I-95–will become, over time, less frightening. Other things–like catching glimpse of a tiny mouse darting impudently across your basement floor–do not cease to remain terrifying. This is OK.
If you have children during this decade, or even if you don’t, you begin to feel a little more benevolent toward your own parents. You understand why they couldn’t fall asleep until you came home from the party, the car and yourself both intact, or until you answered your cell phone and assured them that your plane landed safely. And you understand why they still need to do this, even though you have been out of the house for years.
You catch a glimpse of a childhood crush, a guy who once had a perfect coiffure and a varsity jacket and who starred in your dreams every night without fail, and now he has a comb over and wears his pants too high on his waist. When you run into him at a restaurant while both your spouses are not present, he will subtly and sleazily proposition you, and this will further put a damper on your innocence.
There will be some things you will never get a handle on no matter how much you try, like Middle Eastern politics. In cases like these, when the subject arises in conversation, it’s best to remain silent than risk an opinion you know is uninformed.
You will probably second-guess yourself, no matter how confident you once were in your initial conjecturing. Whether you lean in or out, breastfeed or bottle-feed, attachment parent or let-the-kid-run-loose parent, go organic or chow down on pesticides, wear tefillin or wear a wig (or both!), you will live and learn and likely feel self-doubt often. But as Matthew McConaughey says, “Just keep livin.”
Last, but not least, you do a lot of growing in your 20’s, and this comes as no greater surprise than to once overly confident teenagers who think that they’ll know it all by the time they turn 21. They won’t. Close to 30, most of these sheepish men and women will realize that they’ll never know it all.
Stay away from the ones who still don’t.