3 Things 23 Made Me Realize I Don’t Understand

I have wracked my brain for days, opening new documents and staring at the blank page searching for the perfect words to articulate and condense all the abstract lessons of the last year – each time failing to arrive at a single sentence and finally closing each one in the same blank white state in which it started. When I reflected back on my 22ndyear, the words – and the urgent desire to concretely state the words – to sum up the year materialized into lessons that were so clear it was almost as if they were being told to me by someone else. But now, as I find myself on the brink of 24, feeling as though another year of life must warrant some sort of reflection and insight into myself or the world or simply just something, I’ve come to realize that the reason I can’t articulate the lessons is because lessons are essentially answers, and unlike 22, 23 didn’t bring with it answers – it brought questions, and deeper uncertainty about more things.

But maybe that in itself is the big lesson of 23: coming to terms, and in fact embracing, the reality that the wisdom of growing older may actually just be a greater comprehension of just how much we truly don’t understand. And with this conclusion, it feels only appropriate that my sequel to the ‘lessons 22 taught me’ be the ‘big things that 23 made me realize I don’t understand’:

1. Adulthood.

There comes a point where you can no longer deny the fact that you are fully and completely an adult human being according to most definitions of the word….not just the legal definition (cuz really, who actually considers their 18-year old selves an adult?), but like a it’s-socially-acceptable-to-be-married-and-have-kids-now and I-should-buy-health-insurance level of adult. And once you reach this point of adulthood where you realize that the rest of the world is actually perceiving you as an adult, you come to the strange but inevitable realization that on the inside, you’re still you: there was no single, major life-changing moment where you suddenly realized you transitioned from childhood to ‘adulthood’, and that maybe the concept of adulthood that most of us have subconsciously ingrained in the back of our minds from childhood is all one big illusion – that illusion of thinking that being an adult means we’ll be married by 25, with a solid job and children by 30, and perhaps most importantly, that we’ll just know things.

A huge part of this I think comes from the mindset we have throughout our school careers that the whole first part of our lives is about developing ourselves to one day be functioning adults contributing to society, and that in the meantime, it is okay if we don’t know what we’re doing with our lives or have stability or understand everything because we’re constantly told “you have time” – that awful misleading statement with deep implications not only of the nature of our adulthood but also of our youth. Because ‘having time’ implies that we will eventually reach a point where we don’t have time – where we are suddenly expected to be putting to use everything we have developed and learned up to that point and making something of ourselves by then – thus undermining the important fact that what we do as youth can also have incredible impact on the world and that the period of youth should not simply be about looking inward and preparing ourselves for the ultimate day of ‘adulthood’ when we suddenly need to be something more.

And, probably most detrimental, is that it casts a huge shadow of expectation on adulthood. And, for me at least, expectations – particularly expectations for who you should be at any given time – represent one of the biggest challenges in the transition to adulthood and coming to accept oneself as an adult. While I still have no idea what it means to be an adult, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t mean any single thing – and that my fear of getting older has never really been a fear of ageing but ultimately a fear of not meeting the self-imposed expectations of what I should be at any given age or period of life. Being an adult means being you (and hopefully striving to be the best you that you can be)…but older. It should be that simple. And hopefully, as I get older, it will mean chipping away at all the deeply embedded expectations I didn’t even realize I had for myself that stand as heavy obstacles in the way of self-acceptance and contentment with whatever age I happen to be.

2. Relationships.

Just in general. Romantic relationships, friendship relationships, family relationships, relationships to strangers, relationships to hobos, relationships to people we haven’t even met yet, just all of it. And actually, I can’t even really articulate what it is about relationships that 23 taught me I don’t understand – but somehow, in the path of forming new ones, losing old ones, deepening existing ones, and reflecting on past ones, I’ve found myself just uncertain on how I feel about it all and the role they do or should play in my life. More specifically, how our relationships with people shape who we are, how much we should allow them to govern how we see ourselves, how much we should rely on them for happiness, and how much we should nurture the ones we’ve physically left behind.

This topic is probably too broad and vague to really mean much in writing, but I do feel there is a certain usefulness – if nothing else, by way of coming to a sort of acceptance about it all – in simply acknowledging the fact that I just don’t have the answers (or the questions for that matter…highlighting the extent of my perplexity on the whole subject). And recognizing that adulthood or more relationships and experiences with people don’t necessarily bring greater clarity – but by prompting us to question more things, including ourselves, they do inevitably still bring growth.

All of it might really come down to grappling with the concept of loneliness – and especially the fear of loneliness. 23 has really opened my eyes to the power of future loneliness – and the absurdity of the fact that the fear of potentially having the emotion in the future can actually make you concretely feel it in the present, and to some extent, start to blind you from the amazingness of everyone in your life in the current moment by overshadowing your actual relationships with them with a fear of what they will be to you in the future. Essentially, the fear of loneliness can actually make you lonely in and of itself by preventing you from fully experiencing what you have in the present.

And while I don’t have a solution to this, I do have some semblance of a theory: There are some things in life that are mostly in our control and some things that are minimally in our control. While this is probably debatable and also extremely contextual depending on a person’s life circumstances and probably on how often they move around, I feel like relationships fall more in the latter – we can’t predict who we’ll meet in life and when or where we’ll meet them. We can’t predict how we’ll change in relationship to the friends we have and whether our life paths or growth will converge or diverge. And when you go to a new place and leave people behind, you can put in effort to maintain and deepen what you have but you can’t fully control who will still be in your life 50 years down the line.

And for the things in life that are largely out of our control, it seems the best way we can deal with them is to strive to accept them as they are and appreciate them for what they are – and this includes the people that cross our paths in life. Meeting someone in the most random place in the world that you know you will likely never see again should not create a sense of sadness before you’ve even left them – it should leave you with a deep appreciation of whatever mark they’ve left [or continue to make] on your life for whatever period of time that may be (not to say that we shouldn’t make every effort to keep the people in our lives that matter to us, but just to accept that this is not possible for every single person).

And for even more abstract things like ‘love’ or finding ‘the one’, I may just be extra cynical, but I also feel like this is largely out of our control and that it is not guaranteed that every single one of us finds that person that we will end up spending the rest of our lives with. And because it is out of our control, maintaining an expectation that this will be a given in our lives creates a destructive mindset in which at least a part of us – that part that has internalized all the societal messages of what it means to be an adult and have a fulfilling life – feels as though something is wrong or missing, either in our lives, or worse, in ourselves. Rather, why not live each day focusing on the relationships you do have at any given moment and how beautiful and fulfilling those are – whether or not it’s your friends or families or even the exciting strangers that come along? Or focus on whatever it is that gives your life meaning and purpose and dedicate all of your thoughts and passion into that, rather than the expectation of a future fulfillment to come from someone else entering your life.

I also find some truth in the way a friend had articulated her theory on loneliness and relationships: that the fear of loneliness is less a fear of not having people in one’s life, but the fear of one day finding that you are left with only yourself – in other words, that the fear is actually a manifestation of lack of love for oneself and the thought of finding yourself alone and forced to face the reality of who you are.

I am yet to come to a conclusion on any theory related to loneliness and relationships and how best to function in the world in a way that allows us to fully appreciate each person that comes into our lives without letting the depth of our appreciation for them result in sadness at their absence or lower esteem for ourselves by way of comparisons with those that we regard so highly. But I assume this is just one of those life-long questions that doesn’t have any real answers, but maybe just becomes less of a ‘question’ through the inevitable insights to be gained with age and the wealth of experiences/perspectives that come with it.

3. The mind.

Underlying all the uncertainty about my own fears and relationship to relationships, I feel that this year has allowed me to more fully grasp something that I perhaps knew all along but maybe not the full depth of it: that I don’t really understand my own mind – in fact, to the extent that I am somewhat fearful of how much I don’t understand it. People are complex, and I’m sure we all can recognize that there is so much we don’t understand about others – which is also largely why we have so much to gain from our interactions with others – but I feel like there’s always that part of us that feels that we at least know ourselves. Whether or not we even consciously voice or think it, there is just that sense that since you are in your own body, and your mind is essentially ‘you’, that you must inevitably have a deeper understanding of that entity than the things outside of you.

Or maybe that’s just me. But either way, whatever pretense I had for myself that I understood my own mind was completely dissolved after going through a period of depression – realizing that not only do I not understand my mind but that, if we allow it (assuming it is something in our power to ‘allow’), our minds can take on meanings and perceptions outside of our control and in a way come to control us (and I also realize phrasing it in such a way then presumes that whatever it is that defines ‘us’ is separate from the mind…but that’s another complex topic in itself that I won’t attempt to unravel now). But perhaps one invaluable thing I have come to grasp from the whole experience is a better comprehension of how much power is latent in the mind – and that our entire world, our perceptions, our lived experiences, our memories…just everything – is shaped by it. Which I realize in itself sounds like such an evident statement: that our mind shapes how we see the world and navigate in it. But it’s so much more than that…

Just think, how much of our happiness or unhappiness is a reflection of our actual lives versus what our minds make of it? I keep thinking, for instance, of my fears of loneliness and how much they have come to shape my actual lived experience of loneliness. When I actually step back and look at the reality of what’s around me, loneliness stands in stark contrast to what is presently, physically, and concretely there in my life. And yet, images of the future and of all the ‘what ifs’ weave their way throughout the images of the present, creating a picture tinted by doubts and fears that, regardless of whether they will ever even materialize into reality, in a way do become a part of the current reality purely by existing in my mind.

But then again, how much control do we truly have over our own perceptions? Going so far as to say “happiness is a choice” is a concept I find extreme and harmful to a lot of people – often creating the sense that, if you are not happy, it is on you. If you are sad, it is because you chose to give into the emotion and perceive things in a particular way – which for many, rather than instilling a sense of power and freedom, can rather incite guilt or helplessness in being unable to achieve something they are told is in their power to control. On the other hand, to fully concede to the opposite notion that the mind is an entity of its own, and that the emotions that come from it are largely out of our control, perhaps has equally harmful implications. Perhaps allowing ourselves to believe that our moments of sadness or fear emanate from something outside of our control contributes to the reification of the thoughts themselves, however irrational or skewed they may be.

But again, who knows….

And maybe, to ever come to a point where we can confidently say that we do understand how our own minds work – or how relationships work or what adulthood really means – would be cause for greater concern than not knowing. While I sometimes find myself perplexed and overwhelmed when reminded of the sheer volume of things I don’t understand in the world – or the fact that now, as an ‘adult’, I no longer have the excuse of ‘I’ll understand such things when I’m an adult’ to justify how little I know (although, to be fair, maybe it is a bit extreme to be hard on myself for not being able to understand things like how exactly computers and electricity were invented – by other human adult minds – and came to exist out of the raw material of this earth) – but anyways, as overwhelming as it is to know how much I don’t know, it is also somewhat comforting to know that at least I recognize it – and for now, simply being humbled and inspired by all that I am yet to learn or really comprehend seems an okay state of being as I embark on yet another year of overwhelmingly-perplexing-yet-strangely-and-beautifully-enlightening adulthood.