I'm a geriatric millennial and things have not gone as planned. I misguidedly got a Ph.D in the humanities. I had a series of fraught relationships with people who had avoidant attachment styles. I was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.
I don't mind the abstract idea of starting over — this is America and it's time for my second act — but I also have a lot of envy towards all the people my age (and younger) who already have their shit together, who chose secure partners and stable work, who didn't burn themselves out, who own property. I also feel isolated because it's hard for me to feel close to people like that, so I have withdrawn from several friendships. I gravitate towards others who are floundering because I feel more connected to them.
I worry I've missed my chance to build the life I want. The culture has moved on, my peers have settled down, and all that remains are, as Kerouac wrote, "the forlorn rags of growing old."
Do you have any words of wisdom?
Dear Over 35,
I have been aging disgracefully. Not simply in the physical sense, which is what people assume women always mean, although that’s part of it, because women always sort of mean that. I can feel my body beginning to abandon its sense of resolve, and I can hardly even blame it. After all, I haven’t been especially careful of or tender towards my creaturely self — I’ve rather taken for granted its sturdiness. Oops.
Still, I can accept the two-day hangovers and back pain as a kind of penance. Far worse is being confronted by the brute reality of math. Instagram is perilous, as my friends who are parents — parents, in my head, of babies; adorable little infants; charming toddlers — post photos of what it turns out are actual, legitimate-if-diminutive people who have hobbies and girlfriends and opinions about the world. And then there’s the wholly unfair fact that 37 always follows 36, and is itself inevitably followed by 38. In a just world we would all be able to camp out and take a breather along the way. A benevolent God would let me be 32 for at least three years, since 32 is by far the most sensible age a person can be. Unfortunately there is no room for negotiation about this, and no amount of fuss making can help.
Which won’t stop anyone from making a fuss about it. I’m sure a terrific fuss is about to be made, online and in print, as millennials begin to hit our forties. If I was slightly more craven I’d be pitching a book right now about how the economic factors that conspired to delay or deny my generation the typical markers of adulthood — buying houses, having children — will also cause this transition to come as an enormous and unfair-seeming shock. From Adulting to Middle-Aging or some equally dreadful title. I could contribute the proceeds to my retirement fund, by which I mean I could start a retirement fund.
The problem is I don’t think anyone in history has ever relished this strange period of being no-longer-properly young. It is always a great shock, whether you did the traditional house and kids thing or not. My mom burst into unhappy tears on her 40th birthday, which I remember clearly because I was 19 at the time.
Aging is the slow accretion of impossibilities, and at a certain point we start thinking less about all the things we could do and more about the things we can never do again. Sure, I could theoretically go to Prague or Dublin or Lisbon this year, but I can never ever be 25 in Prague, or 25 in Lisbon, or 25 and in love with the girl I let slip away because she terrified me. It’s natural to think about the person I would be today if I had done any of those things, instead of the things I did. But this fantasy of different choices elides the constraint of me being the person doing the choosing. There is simply no world in which I chase after that girl because I wasn’t, at that point, a person who would do that. There is probably no world in which you settled down at 26 because you were the sort of person who goes to get a Ph.D instead. Hindsight cannot change that.
Which gets at the crux of the matter, Over. You aren’t old, you are merely disappointed. It can feel like the same thing but it’s not, which you are sure to discover 30 or 40 years from now. I know it’s not particularly helpful to hear that, nonetheless it’s the truth. Things will happen in your life you cannot imagine now; you will get things you have yet to discover you even want at all. There are years and years ahead of you to make good decisions and terrible ones. But you’re far more likely to make more of the latter kind if you indulge your envy now. It’s unfortunate that you got a Ph.D in the humanities right around the time a Ph.D in the humanities reached the nadir of its worth. It’s dispiriting that you haven’t met someone who will love you in the way you need. Neither of those things are particularly your fault, but nor are they at all the fault of the people in your life to whom different unfortunate and dispiriting things have happened. Withdrawing from those people only allows you to keep imagining that happiness is as easy as signing a mortgage.
Some people are claimed early by bitterness. You can spot them pretty easily — the querulous, the chronically disappointed. Maybe you were taught by one of these people, or employed by one, or raised by one. These are not fun people to be around. They are shabby and mean, and they probably all became that way one tiny resentment at a time. It is perfectly understandable, when you are feeling a bit lost and directionless, to want to avoid those anchored firmly in place. You assume they will view your lack of attachments as a failure, but in truth some probably envy the chance to start over so unencumbered.
You can choose to resist the instinct to make your world smaller because it feels so small. You can recognize the difference between making a living and making a life. You can imagine yourself, well and truly old, looking back to where you are now, and being grateful you kept close hold of your friends.
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