04 December 2012
They say that age is just a number, but it seems a telling one. Inescapably revealing your deepest secrets to the most undeserving strangers without regard for their hue. Whether they are dark secrets or just quiet truths is not of age’s concern.
I can’t say I’m a fan of this objective approach. I’d like to think I’ve earned my privacy. My secrets are boring and sad and of minimal interest to even my best of friends, let alone strangers, but they are mine, and I’d like to keep them for myself. Or to myself, in the very least.
But my number is quickly approaching twenty-six, and on this anniversary of my inception, I will be left agonizingly unprotected as my life’s story takes on a sudden linear narrative made concrete by this universal information, useful in all things comparative. How do you measure up to my twenty-six years?
I can tell you the story quickly and save you all the speculation, for the details are sparsely intriguing, and rarely unique.
Born on the first of January, five weeks ahead of schedule, I suspect my need for proper health and development was no match for my affinity of symmetry. I knew it would be poetic and suitable to begin all my new days and years in conjunction, and I made it so. My lungs would take weeks of intensive hospital care to get on the same page, but they eventually would, as all things did back then. I did always have a real knack for controlling situations I should have just let be.
The next seventeen years went about as anyone would guess. I did all the right things – all the things that were expected of me. I tried to be the best at everything, and I very nearly succeeded. My accomplishments, coupled with my steely resolve, were a perfect camouflage for upholding the favorable notion that I was a promising and complete person. Which of course, none of us ever are. But I didn’t understand how to navigate the waters of individuality, and so I was happy to fool anyone and everyone watching into believing that I was intentionally the person they saw, and my ensuing years would preferably be spent solidifying the success I’d projected, rather than finding out who I was and who I’d like to be, and defining success accordingly. After seventeen years of it, fooling myself came as a welcome side effect.
But then something miraculous happened. Somebody broke my heart into a thousand tragic fragments, and I discovered pieces of myself I never bothered to uncover before. I was an angry and sad person, as it turned out, and any happiness and contentment I would henceforth find would be fleeting, or an act of conscious and unsustainable effort, and even at that, a flicker to light up my face in time for a photograph, and then disappear for weeks and months, but — God willing — never years.
I realized I didn’t want to go to a good college because it was good, just so people would be forced to acknowledge my intelligence as more than a mere product of a privileged hand. Dreams of Stanford and Harvard and Yale fell by the wayside, replaced by a sense of purpose I’d never previously questioned, or felt compelled to find. But somewhere in all my anger — the loneliness that can only be accompanied by the most unsuspected betrayal – I found it suddenly possible and liberating to admit that which I’d spent a lifetime trying to obscure with convincing attempts at normalcy: I was a loner. And I was alone.
It’s been nine years since this discovery and subsequent admission. I shudder to think where I’d be without it – how far from any truth I’d have settled. But the freedom in self-awareness comes with a burden I wasn’t prepared for, and a learning curve it would take too many years to pace. It turns out a great many people had found themselves before me. Their comfort and self-assuredness contrasted harshly with my reserve and uncertainty, and I wrongly assumed being a loner was a fate instead of a mere character idiosyncrasy. It would take a good many persistent souls and a bit of experience that can only come through years of insufficiency to convince me otherwise.
But god was I convinced. It was brief – absurd and utter contentment that comprised a mere fraction of my collective days – but it was beautiful and delirious and an overwhelming validation that life could be everything you hoped it would it be before you knew any better.
The problem, of course, is that I do know better. And all of my attempts to reconcile my life and my perspective with this simpler time has proved mainly fruitless at best, pathetic at worst. My apparent solution has been the most tragic and troubling of all.
I’ve given up. I chase nostalgia to cities and states and countries like it’s something I will find, instead of something I must earn. I’ve reverted to earlier days, where convincing others of my normalcy is akin to convincing myself, and the image I project is one of disillusion, distrust, and apathy, in order to shield myself from the heartbreak of disappointment, and it has seeped so far into my blood and my bones that I’m not sure it’s possible to siphon out without disastrous consequences. Attempts at self-preservation have spiraled into self-destruction, and it’s a cruel cycle.
Of course, I don’t know these things inherently. My self-awareness has not stretched so far as to render me an authority on the matter. But I recognize the patterns and I bear witness to their undesirable results, and it doesn’t take a genius to make the associations. As much as I thought I had severed the chains and the ties to a childhood that had me focused on all the wrong things, I’ve never quite been able to shake the notion that I am undeserving.
I had tests and grades and games to prove my worth, whose results were plain and undeniable. But in this land of true adulthood, there is only a single landmark by which to discern the magnitude of your accomplishments, or the weight of your failures: age. It is only a number, but it is one you can’t earn or improve upon. The only leverage you have is either to live in an obviously calculable way, or decide it is of no consequence, neither of which I’ve done.
So here I am. Burrowing and folding into myself, thinking it will successfully shield the truth of my stale potential to those who were once convinced of it by my calculated yet misguided young efforts, all while simultaneously cognizant of the greatest truth one can know about themselves: the only approval that will satiate and calm my turbulent mind is my own. And I have no fucking idea how to attain it.
I am on the verge of having lived for twenty-six privileged years, and the things I haven’t done far outweigh the things I have.
When I was young, I knew I could prepare adequately to consistently get the results I wanted. In this world without boundaries – with only guidelines, and vague ones at that – I’m not sure what to prepare for, and I find this unpredictability and powerlessness utterly terrifying, and it has rendered me stagnant. Useless and paralyzed.
But this is not a sob story. I understand that more than anyone. I’ve been given every opportunity to be better – to be everything I could ever imagine would fill my every void – and I’ve left them on every table in every place I’ve ever been, to be swept into the trash like crumpled napkins, or picked up by savvy and courageous people who have the audacity to know not to let life pass them by, as I have.
I’ll be twenty-six soon enough. I’ve never flirted with the idea of love, or been able to pretend I’d even recognize it if it knocked down my door. I’ve never had an actual boyfriend, or a romantic relationship approaching anything mildly significant. I thought it was weird at seventeen. Now it’s absolutely surreal, and yet, given my blatant and overpowering insistence on controlling every outcome, understandably appropriate. I still haven’t the slightest idea how to just let it be.
I have had my heart broken pretty soundly twice, both unromantically, by a best friend and a cousin who filled the void after the initial destruction. Anyone who says your heart can only be broken by romantic love has either never had friendships as poignant as mine, or is impressively less dramatic than I seem to be.
I have best friends, but not a best friend. I am nobody’s number one person, and I’m certain I’ve never done anything to deserve the title. I stopped having number one people when I could no longer bear the emptiness when they departed, as they always do. And usually, as they should. When Walt Whitman uttered the phrase “I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends,” he might as well have been speaking for me.
I have never written anything of substance for anyone to read. I’ve almost never sacrificed sleep for adventure. I’ve almost never endured pain for physical achievement, embarrassment for an opportunity at honest communication, or exposed a bit of my soul for a chance at a truth and understanding that surely can only penetrate one with every guard daringly cast aside.
It’s hard to say whether any of this is defining, or relevant, or merely a footnote in a life far from over. But it is fair to say that with my ever advancing age, my period for trial and error should have passed by now. Not that it’s suitable to deem everyone more than a quarter century old as polished and all-knowing adults, but there are components of being a simple human being that I either haven’t learned, or forfeited with the promise of an easier passage when the going got tough.
I’m hoping, if the case is the latter, it wasn’t a binding and eternal agreement. I want the pain, and the joy that comes before it, and hopefully after. I want to be vibrant and contagiously enthusiastic, even if it means my disappointment and heartbreak will be impossible to hide away. I want to live and be alive, and then to die when there is nothing left to do.
But I’m twenty-six, and I haven’t done any of these things. Perhaps when I’m twenty-seven, and in this ensuing year will have earned these milestones and some peace of mind, my age will finally be just a number. But as it stands, it’s the revelation of my every inadequacy — my darkest secret I never intended to tell.