What It Means To Be Young


Being young is to be obsessed with yourself, to be so blinded to your youth and your opportunity and your joys as to occasionally believe that the universe is actually conspiring against you. It is the desire to step outside of yourself and observe every little thing about you, to lean further and further into that reflecting pool until you drown from a complete lack of perspective.

We are caught between the desire to have a job that puts you in a higher social standing — one that allows for luxuries like brunch on Sundays and a nice apartment in which to invite over friends — and the kind of job that makes you happy and leaves you time for a life outside of work. It’s certainly a heavy disappointment to find that these two things are so often mutually exclusive, but the choice might still be easy to make if society weren’t constantly telling us that there is a right one. You are, whether or not its vocalized in such cold terms, expected to make a certain amount and have certain things. One day you should want a home, a spouse, a child, a dog — and we’re not sure that you want any of those things.

Sure, we want love. Who doesn’t desire to be held, to be cared for, to be looked at with eyes that forgive our ugliness and flaws? But the concept of love itself has been transformed into a kind of package deal that, once bought into, cannot be substituted for anything else. There seems to be a track that one is expected to follow, that has its set goalposts and parameters and promises, at the end of the journey, a pot of gold coins labeled “happiness.” To be young is to see such a path, even if it is ultimately what we might desire for ourselves, as incredibly insulting to our character. We should be making our own paths.

Being young is to be so profoundly healthy as to consider health insurance a luxury that you don’t yet need — and to often be proved right on such a terrifying gamble. Your knees work, your back works, your heart looks good. The concerns about one day finding yourself with something that cannot be cured by an afternoon in bed and some chicken soup are still vague. You might know what disease looks like — perhaps you saw a loved one lose a “battle” with illness that seemed more like a quiet surrender after a painful beating — but it is not yet a real possibility for you. Everything seems to be in its proper place, and the occasional ache or pain subsides quickly.

Youth is a pressing desire, almost a need to be different. The cries of “but I’m not like that” and the eschewing of any label that could be put on you — no matter how apt they might be — become a kind of hum when spoken by so many all at once. We are all Special Snowflakes, all exceptions to the rule, to the point that the rules themselves cease to exist. The idea of being a very important, particular cog in a greater machine that achieves more and goes farther than any of us could on our own is now seen as some measure of worn-out defeat. To admit that you are only an element of a greater equation — even one that, through teamwork and cooperation, sees great things — is some failure of personal agency.

To be young is to be painfully, cripplingly insecure. Categorizing and sorting people as a botanist might a group of plants in a garden — something we’d never acknowledge is possible for ourselves — comes so easily as to go almost unnoticed. He is a this, she is a that. And yet, such an affinity for thinking we know perfect strangers (and wondering, always wondering, what they might be thinking of us) reveals only a deeper narcissism. We pretend that the worst fate would be for people to hate us when our back is turned, but the real pain — the one made all the more unbearable by how true it actually is — is not being thought of at all.

And perhaps to make up for this lack of attention that we get from the world around us, to compensate for every stranger we pass in the street being a full human being with a real life that factors us in not at all, we go right back to staring directly into our beautiful, perfect navels. We see adults — people with so much more life lived and experience that we imagine might make us whole — still stuck in this unflattering phase of self-obsession and insecurity. We see how it ravages the soul and turns you into a shell that exists only to please all of the others who don’t actually care. To be young is to want to grow up, to want so desperately that perspective and strength of character, but to be too transfixed by the mirror to walk out the door.

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