In the weeks before I turned 26, a tide of nausea briefly rippled through my stomach. It was equal parts vanity, regret, and mortal terror. Turning 26 is not as easy as turning 25, 27, or even the dreaded 23 (when nobody likes you, because, what’s your age again?). There are no more additional perks that come with age—renting a car at reduced cost came at 25, and there is nothing else coming down the pike until Social Security (hah) and being able to get the senior discount at movie theaters and Denny’s (assuming your digestive tract somehow grows an iron coating, or perhaps you stop caring about having to buy new underwear). When you turn 26, you leave the 18-25 demographic—meaning that advertisers now care less about what you think because, statistically, you act and buy and think like a young person no longer.
I began to think of all the things I hadn’t done, all the plans I’d made and failed to live up to, all the ambition that couldn’t measure up to the demands of reality. The thought popped into my head “…what if I am turning 30/40/65/on my deathbed, and I still feel this regret?”
Suffice to say, I got quite inebriated that night. But, there is really nothing quite like existential terror to shake you out of your routines or thoughts or beliefs that are, for lack of an accurate and more polite term, bullshit. There is nothing quite like existential terror to make you really step back and evaluate what you are doing, why, and whether or not it’s the right thing to do.
“I’m too old for this sh*t.” – Roger Murtaugh, Lethal Weapon
You have to take a look at the things you do and the things you did. Some folks can line up shots on Tuesday night and be fresh and ready to go for round two at 5 pm Wednesday. If you are 26, chances are you are not one of those people—I certainly am not. Put down the Keystone Light and the shot of vodka if you know deep-down you’d rather have a pint of a microbrew or maybe a nice glass of red wine.
At first, when I had this epiphany, I just thought that it was about me getting old and boring, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It meant I cared more about the journey than the destination—less about getting messed up, and more about really enjoying a nice thing. Youth is turbulent and extreme, and this is just the curve of human experience normalizing. The volume on life doesn’t need to be at 11 all the time. Also, you may now come to understand that these types of volume-11 activities were stupid or embarrassing more often than you are comfortable admitting out loud.
“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” J. S. Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Life is a game in which you have a finite number of points to allocate to skills, and a finite amount of experience. You must understand that you cannot be both a cowboy and an astronaut—a choice must be made, and that pragmatism will do everything it can to micturate upon the rug that brings together the room that is your life. Money and your means of living will do everything they can to dominate your decision making, making them predicate to happiness—if you let them. It’s your job now, as a 26 year old, to carve out happiness from the charred husk of post–Great Recession America. This will require willpower, creativity, and periodic bursts of self-destruction borrowed from your youth (known prior to your 26th name day as “fun”). This project will take you roughly 30-40 years, so plan it out.
And speaking of “fun,” if you are still doing this stuff well into your 30s and it isn’t otherwise causing your life problems, then don’t listen to critics who’ve “grown up”—if you like doing it, find folks who also like doing it, and make them your friends. Don’t feel bad: remember, it’s keeping you sane and letting you live your life the way you’ve planned it. Unless it’s hurting your health or relationships, don’t be easily shamed by people, especially older critics. (If you feel particularly saucy, remind them that the economic meltdown was voted in by their generation, and that you are dealing as best as you can with the mess they made. It seems to be popular to hate on Millennials—don’t tolerate it. Stand up for yourself.) Eat. Drink. Be merry.
If you wanted to do something, take the time now. Nominally, you’re still young. Go on that adventure, that trip overseas, the road trip across America. Do that thing you always talked about doing, but never got around to doing. Do it now, and let no mortal stand in your way.
Most importantly, do away with the notion that you or anyone else in your peer group has this part of life figured out. If it looks like it, they’re only good at faking it. I’m pretty sure even Mark Zuckerberg went through a “what does it all mean” phase while sitting on a throne made of 100-dollar-bill bricks rubber-banded together and stacked like cocaine-stained legos. There is a relative scale, but more or less we all feel it. Don’t try to compare yourself to other people—they aren’t you. They don’t want what you want, and they haven’t been through what you’ve been through. I was surprised to find that some people I know who are happy on paper are filled with the same existential terror and they question themselves even harder than I did. If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, go out and find it.
“Someday, I am going to be dead.” Everyone ever on at least one night, staring at the bedroom ceiling.
Yeah, you’re going to die. Unless humanity manages to pull its crap together and invent clinical/biological immortality (which, awesomely enough, exists in lobsters), you are probably going to feel the icy grip of death wrap around your chest and squeeze out your final breath. Did that make you uncomfortable? Good, that means you’re paying attention.
Let it inspire you. Let it motivate you. That mortal terror you feel is a fire underneath you that you need to transition through this phase and accomplish what you wish you had already done. You are down two touchdowns in the game of your 20s, and you need to rally a comeback.
Let your life be worthy of a bard’s song. Hit each day like it’s a good day to die (as if you were a Klingon). Your days aren’t long, and they’re getting shorter.
Photo by Sara Slattery