To Those in Their Twenties

With spring comes new beginnings.  Trees blossom, smiles suddenly appear on solemn faces.  People emerge like bears after hibernation.  They appear on bicycles and skateboards, in running shorts and sneakers, with frisbees and basketballs.  Or, if they are a writer, or at least pretend to be, they leave their familiar desk, sit under the sun with a pad and pen, and write.

On a sunny morning in Prospect Park, I sat on a bench and engaged in a speedwriting technique where you don’t lift your pen from the page for as long as you can.  This is a way of brainstorming for ideas, bridging the conscious and subconscious mind in order to unlock writer’s block.  When I stopped writing this time, I looked down at the last sentence I wrote, and was stunned.  I was so entranced that I literally froze, unable to put the pen back to the page.  Here’s what I wrote:

I could do anything.  I really could.

This is a thought that plagues people in their 20s.  Yes, I mean plagues.  The choices we have to make in this time in our lives are very real.  Where to live, what career to pursue, who to marry.  These are our biggest life decisions.  We have so many choices in our twenties that it can feel utterly overwhelming.  As the character Marnie in the HBO hit sitcom, “Girls”, puts it, “Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me what I should be doing.  It would make things so much easier.”  Limitless possibilities makes it hard to choose.  It can even make us feel confused and lost.

Hey, wait a second.  America is the land of opportunity and freedom of choice.  We celebrate these ideals.  Our parents worked so we could have every opportunity in the world.  Yet here we are, feeling as if we were blind, living in a world of darkness, reaching out for something – for anything – to hold on to.

In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath describes the phenomenon with a metaphor of a fig tree:

“I saw my life branching out before me like a green fig tree.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tee, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.”

In The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, Meg Jay describes it from a psychological standpoint: you change more in your 20s than in any other period of your life.

Yes, we change more in our 20s than when we’re infants.  And more than puberty.  How is this possible?

According to Jay, the rear part of the brain, that of pleasure seeking, is developed in our teenage years.  The frontal lobe, however, does not develop until our 20s…and is the part of our brain that gives us reason.

Giving it some thought, Jay’s idea made sense to me.  I can point to many an experience during college where I observed pleasure seeking overriding reason.

If you are in your 20s, perhaps you find solace in Lena Dunham’s words, or can relate to Plath’s metaphor, or take comfort in Jay’s explanation.  If not, I offer this:

Seize the day.

This quote has different meanings to everyone.  For some, it means it’s time to hop on the treadmill again, or get back into doing sets of squats, or perfecting your down dog.  Others become determined to endure the bitterness of kale at least one meal a day.

For the uncertain twenty-year-old, treat your twenties like the coming of spring.  If you don’t know what career to choose, go from job to job and leave your mark, like a bee flies from flower to flower and pollenates.  Look forward to defining your life with the same excitement you have for warm spring days.  Or go to the park, sit under the sun, put your pen to the page, and write.

And don’t despair: your frontal lobe is still developing.

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