More people than I expected have admitted to me that their twenties slurped them down, chewed them up and spat them out. Like me, they don’t remember being warned about how painful adulting can be, how dangerous is the fall from the brink of teenagehood into ‘real life’. Suddenly, you come to, on the floor of the abyss, bruised and battered by a decade that promised independence without responsibility, seduced us with all the benefits of greater maturity minus the embitterment of age. What happened?
One’s twenties are an understudied period of life, but talented writers of my generation are addressing this issue. Powerful novels like Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing are among the stories I’ve recently appreciated for their unvarnished portrayals of growing up after high school. And that’s just it – if you read no further, here’s the message: growing up doesn’t stop.
‘Grown-ups’ haven’t grown up; it’s just that their bodies have stopped expanding vertically. ‘Grown-ups’ are still growing up, acquiring the final touches on their frontal lobes, learning how to handle conflict, developing the ability to communicate, refining a sense of who they are. There’s no due date on this sort of thing, so why does the language we use about adulthood apply so much unnecessary pressure? ‘Grown-ups’ is a misnomer doing us all a disservice – because aren’t we all ‘growing-ups’ whether we’re 15 or 50? Can I have an amen!?
I remember where I was when I read When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected, a self-help manual written by an American theology PhD, Paul Maxwell. My dim flat was still full of unemptied moving cartons; my husband was in Queensland by himself on a trip I’d planned for our fifth wedding anniversary.
As Maxwell dissected his own quarter-life crisis – “The human body starts dying at age 25” – I found myself nodding along to descriptions of disappointment, despair, doubt, dissatisfaction and depression. (Being a good evangelical, all his chapter titles and subheadings follow some sort of alliterative pattern.)
But to my surprise, his suggested ‘solutions’ to the capriciousness of the twenty-something years really irritated me! Maxwell’s watertight Reformed faith logic kicked in and suddenly all the soul drained out of the words on the page. Whereas the first half of each chapter attested to the struggle, making me feel not quite so crazy or alone in the universe, the back half of his chapters seemed to me like undercooked rehashings on the quip ‘Jesus is always the answer, doesn’t matter what the question is’. I too had grown into my Reformed, evangelical Christian faith from the age of 12, and so his worldview made sense to me. I recognised his vocabulary and his faithful adherence to what we’re told makes everything better. But I found that I craved something realer, truer – and that I wouldn’t be satisfied with Christian platitudes anymore.
If Paul Maxwell was going to convince me that my Christian faith was the salve for the disillusioning (illuminating?) experiences my twenties were serving up, he was going to have to work a lot harder to make his case. Closing the book on the sententious concluding chapter, I remember thinking that at least Jesus gave interesting answers when people asked him tough questions about life.
Maxwell’s book soon found its way into one of the local library boxes down the street. And I, age 27 and already two years into the dying process, was left empty handed on my quest to survive my late twenties. Yikes!
So what’s my point? Simply this: I think we need to read more and talk more and write more about the hopes we have for our twenties and the disappointments that blindside us. Life after high school is an exciting frontier, so one’s twenties will always be a time of high expectation and high vulnerability. This is why I put it to you – and to myself – that time is better spent on well-crafted stories about the messy human experiences of twenty-somethings than contrived analysis, promising to solve for x and shine a light on the one, true path to the only life worth living.
Maxwell might be right about the slow and steady deterioration of our faculties that begins in the mid-twenties, but with this (very depressing!) emphasis on our decline he shows his hand: We’re running out of time so better get this life thing right ASAP! *Cue pithy evangelical one-liners*
But pat answers don’t work because life’s more complicated than that. So as I leave my twenties behind, I’m giving up on ‘grown-ups’. I’m unlearning the schema of curriculum, assessment and due date, and instead claiming the cliched epithet ‘life-long learner’. My twenties were difficult, but that doesn’t mean I failed and it doesn’t mean life let me down. When I talk about my experience honestly, mine is a story that rings true because it is messy, ironic, contradictory and, ‘til the day I die, incomplete.