80 at 21
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
It’s 10:37 p.m when tiny cries ring out from my microwave’s timer. I open my plastic box of convenience and pull out a plastic bowl of ease. I pour in fluorescent orange powdered comfort. I pick up a cheap spoon and stir the ingredients together. I carry my meal of calcium-packed laziness into my living room. I sit down at my dining room table and take a bite. I burn my tongue on mac-and-cheese and adulthood.
I am alone and surrounded by familiarity. The taste of the mac-and-cheese is like someone plastic-wrapped childhood. It’s good, but there’s nothing special about it. I look around at the empty walls of my college apartment. We don’t have any decorations because we don’t have the time or the money for any distractions. Suddenly, I feel plastic.
My roommates and I are replicas of adulthood. I’m eating a microwave dinner. I don’t own any furniture in my apartment. My dessert will be a store-bought package of chocolate covered mint candies. We live inside the walls of our apartment and pretend we are adults. We’re like a plastic balloon. On the outside, we’re covered by the thin illusion of adulthood, but on the inside, we have no idea what we’re doing. We float around directionless and lifted by our hollow innocence.
“Hey. What’s up?” my roommate asks, cutting into the silence.
“Not much. Just the usual school stuff.” I say like I’m reading a script.
“I went to the hospital for the third time this week.” my roommate chimes.
The words hang in the air for a moment. I let the subtle tinges of his embarrassment echo around me. I sit in the silence with lips colored orange by processed cheese.
“I’ve been thinking about taking some time off from school. I wanted to do that earlier this semester, but my parents didn’t understand.” he continues.
“That’s tough man, I know you’ve been struggling. I know your parents don’t really get it.” I add.
“I just feel like I need a break from school. Just a week or something.” he pleads.
“Maybe you should take one. You’ve gotta do what’s right for you. Whatever makes you happy. School can wait.” I suggest.
“I just feel like I’m in too deep. The semester’s almost over. It would suck to quit.” he retorts.
“Yeah, but you can’t think like that. You can’t blame yourself. It always sucks to give up on something when you’ve put a lot of work into it, but sometimes you have to take a break. You have to do what’s right for you.” I repeat.
It’s 11:03 p.m. when the washing machine dings and our conversation ends. He leaves the room and I am left alone once again. Well, except for our apartment cat who stares back at me from the corner of the room. I replay our conversation in my mind, but the tape is jammed. I think about what I should tell him, but I’m stuck. I want to say so many things, but none of them feel right. My words are string cheese; soft, floppy, and limp strands of nonsense.
“Sometimes you have to do things that your parents won’t support.”
“There’s always time to change your trajectory. A break can be an opportunity to redirect yourself.”
“You should try to get help from the school. They have an office that advocates for students.”
Those are all things that I think about saying, but none of them come out. None of them feel right. The moment is fragile and I don’t want to shatter it with a sharp fragment of a crude thought. Instead, I sit in the silence, the words that won’t come out swirling around me like noodles swirling in a bowl of mac-and-cheese. One statement hangs over me. It’s something my roommate said when I brought him to the hospital the first time.
“You can never understand how this feels.”
He’s right. How could I? It’s his experience and his alone. Besides, I don’t even know what I’m doing with my life, let alone someone else's. That’s when it hits me. I’m a kid. I’m a kid pretending to be 80 at 21. Of course I have no idea what I’m doing. I know I’m not alone in feeling lost in the midst of life. The Internet is filled with memes, blog posts, and videos about struggling to find meaning in the chaos of reality.
In the modern age, young adults are forced to pretend to be something they’re not. Everything is visible and every consequence is permanent. We’re surrounded by comparisons and standards. It’s no wonder there’s pressure to progress. The world screams at us to grow up, to do better than our next-door neighbor, and to never stop. If we don’t move fast enough, we’ll never keep up. We have to be better than the next person if we want to succeed. We’re constantly told to be smarter, stronger, and faster if we want to make it.
We’re never told to take a break. We’re never told to rest. We’re never told that it’s ok to not know what we’re doing. There’s a problem with that culture, because we forget about ourselves and others around us. It made me forget about what I could have said to my roommate, because I was scared. I was scared to fail and I was scared to be wrong. The truth is that it wouldn’t have mattered if I was “right,” what would have mattered is that he was heard.
“I hear you.”
“How can I help?”
Those are three things that I don’t say enough. Those are three things that I should have said. Who cares if what we do or say is perfect, if it makes someone feel better. I don’t have to a wise old 80 year old. I don’t have to know everything After all, I’m old 21 years old. I’m done struggling to keep up with unachievable standards. I’m going to take more time for myself and for others. I’m going to listen more and relax more. If I miss an opportunity, an event, or project deadline, I know there will be another.
It’s 12:42 a.m and I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.
Note: This article was originally published on Medium in October 2018.