I am now twenty five years old, an unimaginably old age when I was a child, and one which will seem incredibly youthful when I am old. Balancing both the past and future, my present thoughts are I am at the middle of the middle, with a quarter life crisis constantly hovering around the corner waiting to pounce.
Meg Jay wrote a book called, The Defining Decade in which she stressed the importance and critical time your twenties are to the rest of your life. It is, to date, the only book I can remember actually hurling against the wall. This act of violence was no discredit to the book, the point is apt, but not the thing you need to be reading when you are already hyper-focused on maximizing the present moments for the sake of the future. It’s like adding gasoline to an inferno, it’s just not going to help anyone.
With my defining decade half over, I am forced to reflect and contemplate (more than I already do). In five years since turning twenty, what do I have to show for it? I could count my blessings, like the Sunday School Song suggests, or I could review the lessons I have had the opportunity to learn.
The Worth of Grand Ambitions
Throughout childhood, I was nurtured on the biographies of the great men of the past. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Winston Churchill, etc, etc. All of these men made their marks on the world at a young age, they were industrious and capable and by the age of twenty five had accomplished far more than I could hope to by the time I’m fifty.
Although it has taken a lot of effort and rending of sackcloth and ashes, I have eventually accepted (halfheartedly), I cannot compare myself to these greats of the past. It is a game I am not only destined to lose, but can take heart knowing I am not alone in losers circle. When comparing oneself to literally the best, you cannot help but fall short.
Difficult though it is to accept, I am myself. Not Thomas Jefferson, not Theodore Roosevelt, and consequently I have to live my life and work within my circumstances and contexts, not theirs. This doesn’t mean I cannot learn from their actions, or take inspiration from their grit or competency, it means I cannot judge myself by their lives or accomplishments.
My appetites will always outstrip my ability to feed them. This could, if I was given unlimited resources, undermine whatever character I have tried to develop. Instead, it has given rise to innovation and determination. As a favorite quote of mine says, “Wants awaken Intellect. To gratify them disciplines intellect. The keener the want, the lustier the growth.” — Wendell Phillips.
Desires are motivations which prompt us to seek more from life than the mere comfort of home and hearth. To rise above merely survival and pushes us to greater and grander things. Whatever my wants, my ambitions and my desires might be, they are the prompts which have pushed me to try harder, to train, to struggle and to think critically. Very often, it doesn’t even mean I carry the day with the outcome I wanted, but what it did was give me a discipline which outlives the goal for which it was designed.
Life Doesn’t Add Up
Try as I might, I haven’t yet found a formula which works for life. In math we work with certainties, and can therefore solve the unknown variables based on the information we have. Life, regretfully, works far more differently. If we speak in terms of people, interactions, and the journey we know of as life instead of the practicalities of physics and natural sciences, math doesn’t work. There are precious few certainties upon which you can attempt any formula of any kind, and the odds are even that one is a guess at best.
I have tried often, to approach situations like a math problem. We are working to solve for a variable, so here are the known quantities and here should be the solution. Virtually every single time I have done this, I have not only been proven incorrect, but wrong in every conceivable way.
The unknown and uncertain are too strong a force. We constantly are working with incomplete information, working towards outcomes we can only hope and guess at. This is one of those contexts in which we can’t calculate the perfect strategy 100% of the time, 50% even is pushing it. Our best strategy is to be equipped sufficiently to meet with incalculable variables and outcomes possible.
By nature I want to solve the problems I encounter. If there’s incomplete information, I like to learn everything I can to try to grasp and reason the potential answers. As fun as it can sometimes be, especially those precious moments where I’m right, most problems aren’t mine to solve. A lot of things in life don’t need to be “solved” like a math equation, they are conflicts which if we give them time work themselves out without or help or intervention.
Let it Grow
The most difficult lesson, which has been drilled into my mind over, and over, and over, again, with enough repetition I can now quote it chapter and verse, is to let things grow on their own. No matter what my imposed narrative may be, whatever story I think sounds best, I am not the author of events. The best I can ever hope for is to occasionally improvise a good line or say my dialogue well.
Patience is a virtue which many of us would admit to disliking. It is never convenient, and for better or worse we live in a culture which is doing it’s best to remove any need for it. Waiting has become not just difficult, but abnormal to daily life. Shockingly, a lot of things we wait for don’t come with Amazon Prime two day delivery.
My attitude has always been aggressive, one which I think has actually worried some of my friends over the years. Despite being mild-mannered, if I want something I’ve never felt hesitation to developing a plan and going for it. Grabbing the bull by the horns, I have taken my shots over the years to push myself to where I want to go and to reach out for the things I want from life. Inevitably, the point is reached where it’s not sustainable. In my rush to achieve victory, I have torched everything and destroyed the organic structures which were trying to work in my favor.
As hard as it is to accept, I don’t always need to rush to the conclusion, or try harvesting the plants the moment they show any kind of fruit. If you harvest fruit before it’s ripened, you get a mouthful of bitter tasting mush. Things take time to grow. Once a seed is planted, it can develop on its own without needing the farmer to try pulling on it each day to grow faster.
There are days where, I think I’m the only one who watches the clock. We all age and die, as much as it’s occasionally nice to ignore the facts of death. This is relatively easy math to do, and if you average what you can be expected to live to, you see really quickly how little time you actually have to work with. The sand is draining away, with nothing you can do to replace it. This sense of urgency dogs me like a persistent rash, constantly flaring up and aggravating everything I try to do. Seeing the limited time left, I slip into a sense of defeat if I haven’t done enough to “fill the unforgiving minute.”
The Folly of Self-Importance
My impetuous urgency to be everything, to constantly be productive is perhaps one of the greatest examples of my inflated sense of self-importance possible. The world does not hang upon my ability to be at 100% all of the time, or to rush to the finish line in every circumstance. I am really not as important as I think I am.
The belief in your own significance can bring relevance and discipline to life, but as with any form of excess it breaks down into a disease of unquestioning ego. A couple of different times over the last year, I have had moments to observe, not only how important I appear to myself, but how important we all feel to ourselves. We all go about our lives imagining the world is looking upon us, waiting for us to make the mistake which will topple our relevance. In reality, no one else really cares because we are all too wrapped up in ourselves to pay the slightest attention to you.
Before the idea depresses you, look at the benefit. If no one is really watching, and no one really cares, you don’t have to feel like the spotlight is constantly focused on you. At the wedding of a dear friend, one of the other groomsmen asked if I felt nervous being up there with people watching. I replied, “Why should I?” No one was going to notice me, the audience would barely notice the groom himself, let alone his groomsmen.
The world is very rarely going to watch and wait with bated breath for our demise or success. It only asks that we take action as our opportunities arise and play the hand we are dealt to the best purpose we can. It is a far easier game to play when you don’t have to worry about the world laughing at you when you make a small mistake or slip up.
The Myth of Maturity
When you are told your entire life you are mature for your age, you get used to the idea of being an adult. The problem arises when you reach the point where you are forced to become more mature than you were already. I’ve been mature for my age my entire life, yet somehow at twenty five I am finding there’s more to it.
Maturity is important, more than simply the self-seriousness of an adolescent who wants more from life than a juice box and a silly song from animated vegetables. It is in many ways a matter of thinking farther than yourself, thinking farther than your own immediacy or self-interest. It is a process which doesn’t usually find a definite ending until the definite end.
If you are really growing in life you will find maturity to be a process, not a destination. Each day challenging you to grow up in some new way or another, asking if you are grown up enough to do the difficult deed and make the best of what you didn’t want to happen.
Better Than I Can Write
Despite being someone who mapped out his way to his thirties at the age of sixteen, there is no possible way I could have imagined where my life would be by twenty five. My life then and my life now are dramatically different, but better. Whatever I imagined my life would be, it is better. A statement which once would have been considered heresy by my younger self, can admit to living a life which is better for the chaos of the unexpected and unanticipated which have me where I am today.
As a writer, and someone who reads about writing, it is easy to create the dialogue and story of how you plan things to go. Everyone does this by nature, the danger of adding the knowledge of story structure and writing is you can turn your image of the future from a low-grade indie production to a big-budget studio film with better lighting. Even now, I still find myself writing out what I imagine to be the best structure, the best dialogue and the optimum conclusion for a particular scene or series of events. The truth is, I’m living a better life than I can write.
It is humbling to admit, but I can’t write this well. It is not to say my life is grander than my imagination, I can imagine far better things. My life now is precisely where I am supposed to be, not ahead, not behind, I am living where my God has me now for this time and place.
From my faith I derive this contentment in my context and circumstances, and can marvel at how much better plotted out the script I am in is better than anything I could fashion. That doesn’t mean I don’t disagree with the production from time to time, what actor doesn’t think he should have juicier dialogue and more time on screen? The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote, “Remember, you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses — if short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple, or a ruler, see that you act it well. For this is your business — to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to Another.”
The only power I have is to act best in my given role, God doesn’t need my script notes or advice.
The lessons I have learned have not always been easy to digest, but they have been instrumental in making me a better person today than I was yesterday. The one of the few goals I has never failed me has been simply that, to find improvement in every year, even if it means learning a difficult lesson or two along the way.