I hear a lot of referrals to being in your 30s. Often, we boil down what growing up feels like to a small, confined bubble and apparently, we do so in decade increments. But how can we possibly define what it means to be an adult when everything around us, and even we ourselves, are constantly evolving? Maybe we can, but it doesn’t mean we should.
When I really take the time to sit with my feelings, it can be incredibly paralyzing. In my 30s, I have come face-to-face with the realities of my country – the systematic racism, sexism, bigotry and corruption that courses through its veins – and my place in it. I have had days where I feel afraid, confused, unmotivated, and locked in a feeling I can only assume is depressed. In my wildest dreams, I could have never imagined the consistent barrage of shootings, violence, natural disasters, war, sexism, inequality and injustice that is my country. Like a lot of kids, I was told I could have a happy life in a happy world. Preparing for how hard that can feel is something we haven’t really figured out.
Like a lot of young adults, I have faced the personal setbacks of loss, financial instability, heartbreak and pressure to find purpose in my actions. I have imagined and built, then lost and rebuilt, numerous lives for myself. And there’s a point during each refresh that feels scarier than the time before. Particularly now.
There is no self-care model for this. Life is a constant ebb and flow of figuring out not just what makes you happy, but what makes you unhappy and trying to protect yourself from not experiencing it again. It may be realizing that friends will disappoint and hurt you, and searching out new companions. It may be working job after job with the conflicting aspirations of financial security and accomplishment or pride. And it almost always includes losing people we love in various forms.
Lately, how I feel feels like a first for me. Some nights I am ready to throw on the shiniest bodysuit I can find and dance until the sun comes up, meeting strangers and falling more in love with the city I call home. Yet in the same week I may be frozen in bed telling myself it’s okay to tune out to HBOGo for as many hours as it takes for me to realize I didn’t eat all day. It is these sweeping highs and lows that I feel most unprepared for as an adult.
What ultimately connects us all is that we are all facing own growing pains. And perhaps the biggest challenge of adulthood is listening, learning, and facing the pains of others as you sort out your own. As a self-confessed empathizer, I feel everything very deeply. It’s something I have really learned about myself in the past few years. Looking back on the notes I would leave on my mother’s pillow when she worked a double shift, or volunteering to escort women into a clinic where they are harassed for accessing health care, don’t feel like heroic or abnormal actions. They feel like the right thing to do. If you think you lost your dog, my heart and brain will pull up the emotions I felt when my dog Buddy snapped his leash and ran away, and I won’t stop until we find your dog. If you tell me you got a new job, I will want to throw you a party with balloons and friends and banners so you feel like the most accomplished person alive.
I live a lot of my life ensuring that those around me feel like the most important person in it. And that isn’t going to change.
Much advice that comes my way revolves around putting myself first and self-care, basically the whole put my mask on before the person next to me rhetoric. But if I am being honest with myself, I am going to want to make sure everyone else has a damn mask. Maybe it is what leads to my own struggles or hurdles, but at this point in my existence, it’s how I would define myself. The hiccup in this epiphany is figuring out how to continue to live and love in big ways in my current world.
With age comes the choice of moral responsibility. How do you want to live your life? What will make you happy? How do you want to be treated? What do you want to leave behind? These were the questions I grew up with. They are phrased and asked in such a simplistic way that simple answers like “I want to take walks after dinner with my best friend” or “I want everyone to have equal voting rights” feel pretty logical. The fact that it’s not that easy is my reminder that it’s okay not to have answers to questions that don’t quite fit.
The main question I have been asking myself lately is, what choice do you want to make? Each day, each hour, we have choices to make. What to wear, what to say, where to go, who to meet, and what to dedicate our time to. It’s a constant puzzle of making a choice, finding out if it feels good or bad, then choosing again. Sometimes it really comes together, and other times nothing quite fits correctly. The reminder to take a step back, re-examine the puzzle, and try again is all we can do.
Whether you’re figuring out the best method to get your kid to sleep, the next strategy in ensuring hurricane victims receive help, how to pay for dinner tonight, or what your city council really does, they are all choices. It can feel overwhelming to digest them all at once. Much like the brain hole that is social media, we are constantly scrolling through a list of self-reflections while literally scrolling through snippets of horrific news, filtered photos, and a constant stream of culture, history and events. And with every choice comes a million more choices.
So this is the scary part. The part where I have to make choices, for myself. Do I allow myself to turn my brain off and watch a movie whose sole purpose is to entertain me? Do I take a different train without a book or headphones and engage with strangers? What social justice organization do I want to learn more about and donate to? Can I really afford that? Is it normal to not want to talk to anyone all day? What should I wear to the show? How much news can I absorb and still get up and fight this administration?
I certainly don’t have the right answers, because there may not be just one. I can confidently say I want to choose to do more, learn more, love more, lead more, inspire more and engage more. I want to stand up to and break down inequality and injustice. I want to ride my bike and fall in love. I want to adore my job and feel pride in what I create. I want to go camping and get really dressed up and ride in a helicopter and go to rallies and get a dog and learn guitar and do something that made someone’s day a little better. I want to do it all. Yet I want to feel comfortable knowing I can’t do it all.
Learning that I can’t fix everything feels like life’s cruelest lesson. I can’t single-handedly end rape culture. I can, however, make choices that educate others on consent and misogyny. I can’t fix a friend’s broken heart. But I can bring them a bottle of wine and listen. I can’t expect others to help me with my choices. Yet, I can surround myself with people who respect my choices and learn with me.
Maybe I haven’t figured out how to be an adult, but I am slowly getting better at feeling ok with not knowing. And while I have been told I should be better at asking for help, I don’t think it’s help I am looking for. How do you even begin to ask for help when people are struggling for clean water? How do you complain about debt when you live in a world of white supremacy and violence? The “help” is reading about a scholarship a student just received. Or friends sitting around my living room sharing funny stories. It’s getting daily emails of positive ways to lift up an organization, or organizing a local fundraiser. What helps me make good choices is seeing the good choices of those around me and those who inspire the hell out of me. It’s seeing how choices affect others and learning how to make better ones in the future. What helps is stepping back from the puzzle and taking it one piece at a time.
So maybe that’s it. Maybe it took me nearly 1,500 words to say that adulthood has thus far taught me one critical lesson in life: In every turn, make better choices.