My students are often dismayed when I announced that the worst is still in front of them. The teens, even with High School, adolescence, and hell of Jr. High (considered by many the worst time ever), is not the worst decade: it’s the 20s.
This comes as somewhat of a shock. By the early 20s, many students have a bit of distain for themselves back when they entered the university just a few years ago. They cringe at their naïveté, shake their head at their former expectations, and wonder at how far they have come. Nevertheless, even then, at twenty-one or twenty-two, there’s been enough growth and change to elicit a bit of nostalgia for the raw promise and possibilities of themselves at eighteen.
I, too, can remember it fondly.
Stood there boldly sweatin’ in the sun.
Felt like a million; felt like number one.
The height of summer, I’d never felt that strong.
Like a rock.
I was eighteen; didn’t have a care.
Working for peanuts, not a dime to spare.
But I was lean and solid everywhere.
Like a rock.
But now, of course, they think things are different. They don’t necessarily know where they’re going, but they know that it’s time to go. They have left their naïveté behind. They’ve grown up, become savvy, and are ready—finally ready—for “real” life. Some of them have already mistaken cynicism for maturity, but most have good intentions and an abundance of optimism. All you gotta do is just, finally, turn them loose and get out of their way, because they are tired of sitting, tired of nuances, tired of discussion, and tired of listening.
My hands were steady, my eyes were clear and bright
My walk had purpose, my steps were quick and light.
And I held firmly to what I felt was right.
Like a rock.
I can still remember that fondly, too.
And the thing is, we feel so charged, so ripe, so full of juice, so…ready in our twenties. We feel boundless. And we are. Through my twenties I worked full- and part-time graveyard picking, eight to twelve tons of groceries a night, and still went to school (even graduate school), and built rock walls and did landscape on weekends. Sure, I nearly killed myself a few times falling asleep at the wheel. Once right into the telephone pole at the end of Locker Road. Once into a guard rail just on the Harbor side of the Narrows bridge. Once almost head-on into a truck. But I survived. I finished my Ph.D. while teaching at two universities, running a landscape business, building my dream home with my father, and caring for two kids. Sure, my body now groans with the effects of my jobs, those accidents, and working on the house, piled on top of earlier athletic injuries and wear. Now, I live continually in some kind of pain and with a bottle of Ibuprofin never far from my side. Now, I have a chronic autoimmune condition, my body attacks itself, continually eating away at the strength I used to take for granted. Now, I have to pick and choose my battles carefully, and rest and recover between them. Now. But then, and all the way through my thirties, I could just keep going, and going, and going.
Like a rock, I was strong as I could be.
Like a rock, nothin’ ever got to me.
Like a rock, I was something to see.
Like a rock.
And I was somethin’ to see. But for all that, the twenties are the decade when we often start out strong, and then keep going, in the wrong direction. In our twenties we’re still in transition, still negotiating the realities that we have inherited, still growing up with the realities of what we find. And while young adults relish their ability to make their own choices over things like their time, career, or marital status, we tend to exercise those choices under the illusion that we are responsible for getting them all together, and getting them all right, right now, the first time. How wrong we are.
And I stood arrow straight, unencumbered by the weight.
Of all these hustlers and their schemes.
I stood proud, I stood tall; high above it all.
I still believed in my dreams.
And so, many of us choose the wrong careers, embrace the wrong identities, marry the wrong people—and have children with them—in our twenties. The conveyor-belt of education dumps us onto the world stage and we think that we should start performing lifetime roles that most of us, at the time, just aren’t ready for. In some cases, the roles don’t yet exist. In some cases, the person whom we need to become, or the other person we need, in order to play those roles successfully does not yet exist, or never will. Our personalities, our goals, and our ideals are like freshly pressed wine — sharp, strong, full of acrid tannin, but overly simple and without much depth. We need a bit of aging, or even distilling, before we become ourselves. And then, many of us must make harrowing choices in our thirties, fourties, or even fifties, to either abandon most, if not all, of what we have built up, or come to terms with the fact that the rest of our life will primarily be made up of learning to live with, and limited by, the choices we made when we didn’t know better.
Twenty years now; where’d they go?
Twenty years; I don’t know.
I sit and wonder sometimes where they’ve gone.
And sometimes late at night when I’m bathed in the firelight
The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white, and I recall.
I recall …
I wish we all knew what we were doing in our twenties. I really do. But the truth is, most of us really don’t. And I try to warn my students that the next decade is going to bring a lot of mistakes, and a lot of sifting out of who they think they want—or have—to be from who they actually are and eventually become. And I plead, in my own way, for them not to be too eager to dig into the mistakes that they will make in the next 10-15 years, not to feel like they have to get it all together too soon, and not to be too discouraged when the whole next decade seems to turn into one giant cluster-fuck. No one should have to carry that weight.
Like a rock. standin’ arrow straight.
Like a rock, chargin’ from the gate.
Like a rock, carryin’ the weight.
Like a rock.
I want them to know that, even in your forties and fifties, it’s not over. Not by a long shot.
Yes, I still have nostalgia for the raw power and unfiltered clarity I had in my twenties. But even if I could, I would never go back. We should never go back to the twenties. But we can regain something of what we admired in our youth, tempered by trial, deepened by wisdom, and focused by experience when we learn to live authentically. And learning to live authentically takes time. More than twenty-something years.
Like a rock, the sun upon my skin.
Like a rock, hard against the wind.
Like a rock, I see myself again.
Like a rock.
–Bob Seger, Like a Rock