Monday, 15 July 2013

The Horrible Pathos of Being Twenty

I received an email the other day--I will edit it and post it up tomorrow--that reminded me of how really horrible it can be to be twenty. I suppose it's okay for the "old souls" out there, whose adolescence-addled brain synapses have all reorganized themselves properly by then. However, I am thinking of the vast majority who have graduated into the adult world, looking like adults, but having only vague clues as to how to cope in the adult world. I think it is even more confusing if, like me at twenty, you are simultaneously an adult and a child living in your parents' house, with your parents treating you as a child, perhaps as an increasingly delinquent child, or worse, sometimes as a child, and sometimes as a pathetic adult who should be paying rent.

Unless you are an "old soul", being twenty is like being bipolar: everything is either super-amazing or deeply horrible. You struggle with a world that does not fit in with your preconceived notions, and sometimes you hang onto those preconceived notions despite strong evidence that they are wrong. You long for love and male admiration while vaguely feeling that others might think this shameful. Your brain is already overloaded with emotions and desires and you goad it on by, perhaps, watching romantic movies or sitting by a river reading The Sorrows of Young Werther to see if it will make you suicidal. (Okay, that was me, only no river.)

You may even live in a fog of wishful thinking thinking, and reality hurts so much, it's as if you have no skin. You do not know how to deal with male attention, and you do not know how to deal with lack of male attention. You exaggerate everything, and so do your friends. You make decisions based on how cool or romantic something seems, not on how practical or fruitful it is.

You think almost everyone else is smarter and less confused than you. If you are coping with men en masse for the first time, men your age are either gods or monsters in disguise. They are GOOD or they are BAD. They are INTOXICATING or they are BORING. If intoxicating, they are POTENTIAL FUTURE HUSBANDS or they are POTENTIAL RAPISTS. If you are traditionally religious, you might not even notice your terribly wounding sins of unkindness, and but even the lightest of sexual sins inspires lacerating self-hatred. 

That said, you are not completely pathetic, and you may have a clearer moral understanding than all the people around you. To cheer myself up, I will tell you about an incident from my life at twenty.

When I was twenty, and a mess of wishful thinking, preconceived notions, exaggeration and very likely undiagnosed clinical depression, I went away with my university drama club to an American city. My fellow actors were mostly grad students; I was the youngest and the only practicing Catholic. All the others seemed so old and smart and sophisticated. The professor was god-like and the grad students seemed virtual demi-gods.  

The very nicest man in the show was gay. I think he was the one who broke it to me that the guy in the show I had a crush on was gay, too. At any rate, this was the first nice openly gay man I had ever  met. (The others had been really nasty or super-scary or both.)

Our play was a medieval play, about one of the episodes in the life of Our Lady, and we performed it in a beautiful Catholic church. I vaguely remember the priest, but he was not very high on my radar. Unbeknownst to me, he soon began hitting on the nice gay man. For example, he invited him along to his gym. He kept this up the whole time we were there, and his intentions were so obvious that the nice gay man complained about them on our way home, as we were all eating lunch. He was a church-going Protestant gay man, and  Acting-out Catholic Priest was not the kind of man he wanted to bring home to his mother

I was horrified. I had never heard of such a thing. And how humiliating! A priest, a Catholic priest, a Catholic priest, hitting on a visiting gay actor from my university, from my very group! Of course, I had heard the horrible news reports about some priests in Newfoundland abusing boys, but I had never heard of an opportunist priest trying to seduce a grown-up man. 

Some years ago I saw a photograph of that roadside lunch of over 20 years ago. In it I look incredibly fluffy and sweet, like a sleepy baby rabbit.  

"Why didn't you tell me?" I cried to all those older, sophisticated non-Catholics. "I could have learned his last name! I could have written to his bishop!"

And all those older, sophisticated non-Catholics said, "That's why we didn't tell you."


Julia said...

I think I was an 'old soul' from about the age of twelve in many ways! In fact, as an adolescent I was often puzzled by the behaviour of many girls my age ('Why are they laughing hysterically about that? Why do they care about that pretty unimpressive guy?')
But that doesn't mean I was happy and confident round the clock either. I always found it pretty frustrating when people would remark that 'These years (high school, university etc) are the BEST years of your life!!!!!' It made me think that the people who said that had probably had pretty boring lives since high school. However, my parents always assured me that the best years were still to come.

At twenty I was way too preoccupied with my high-pressure undergraduate degree to worry too much about men. I never really saw men as 'demi-gods' or 'monsters', rather just as 'nice' or 'smart' or 'irritating/immature', although I was certainly in awe of the men and women I studied with who I felt were especially talented. I was way too focused on my own goals to give guys much thought. They were just sort of there. And since my degree had such an intense workload and I placed such high expectations on myself, my social life was a casualty and I didn't see anyone much (men or women) outside of university anyway.

Rent in Australia is pretty high, especially in my city, and for most people the idea of buying a house is laughably unrealistic (you should see some of the places here that go for $500,000 - that's the low end of the market too). Because of that, many young people, even those who are out of university and working, still live at home with their parents, and I believe this new stage in life is referred to as 'pre-adulthood'. I don't think it's a great thing, personally. But for many people there isn't really an alternative, and it's especially annoying when some self-appointed media luminary will carry on about how entitled and selfish Gen Y is without stopping to acknowledge that it's actually pretty difficult to start independent adult life in Australia these days.

So I guess that last paragraph is only tangentially related to the post, but my guess is that young people in many countries face these challenges.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you described my twenties experience almost to a T! I was incredibly shy and naïve, having been homeschooled and then sent to a very conservative Catholic college. I lived with my parents for 3 years after I graduated from college, and suffered horribly from a lack of independence and confidence which I felt, but couldn't define. After I turned 30, my life has become so much brighter and more interesting! I suspect it's because I've become content with the present, and no longer pin my happiness on a knight in shining armor coming to rescue me from the mundane.


woodbine said...

This is such a great post! I'm almost twenty-three, and while I really enjoyed university, feel like I have regressed in the year since graduation. Moving back in with my parents is like reverting back to being a teenager sometimes, except with faint memories of the wonderful independence I used to have. I can totally relate to the shifting, frustrating, anxious identity you describe.

Wow life is complicated... Thanks for going there.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Auntie Seraphic. I'd say much more - but really it all boils down to: thank you for this post and for being so wonderful.


Seraphic said...

Thanks, Philopator! That's very nice of you.

Woodbine, I feel your pain. In fact, I lived your pain. But after years on my own, I kind of liked living with my parents, and I definitely like staying with them now. Clean laundry appears like magic. I did not appreciate that enough before. Ditto being treated like a teenager when I am over 40. Hee, hee! So irritating when you are 25, so amusing now.

Ladywisdom,you are so right. It gets better. Nobody should dread their 30th birthday. The thirties are potentially fantastic.

Julia, I too hate all this talk about "failure to launch". I recommend ignoring it. My teenage years (the Eighties) were blighted by well-paid, comfortable adults saying, "Oh you kids today have no sense of activism. In the Sixties, We Changed the World. In the Sixties, We Stopped a War. In the Sixties, blah blah blah. We are so superior to you."

The truth is, adults with cushy jobs have everything but youth and sometimes they hate the young because the young have the one thing they can never have back again.

I do not hate the young because I remember how much it sucked and also most of you are beautiful, the girls like fluffy baby bunnies and the boys like...hmm...well, not exactly like fluffy baby bunnies. (She looks shifty and runs away.)

Julia said...

I'm starting to suspect that every generation likes to one-up the generation that follows. My mum refers to this and similar phenomena (eg the belief that pre-Enlightenment Europeans were bigoted, superstitious morons) as 'chronological snobbery'.

Sometimes it hits me that 'Wow, my youth is totally wasted on me'. But then I usually stop worrying about it and instead appreciate the fact that I can still function on minimal sleep.