If you had asked freshly bat mitzvah’d 13-year-old me what she thought she would be doing at 26, she would have blinked owlishly and given little response. To a kid, 26 is a proper, adult age indistinguishable from 46, 66, 86. At 26, my younger self would posit, I would probably be the exact same unsure, closeted bookworm, alone and slightly taller. If I made it that far.
Grim, but a common refrain for LGBTQ and mentally ill kids, of which I was both. My 20s felt eons away and even when I reached them, the pressure to make the most of my “best years” weighed heavy on my mind. As soon as I hit 20, the countdown clock began. I had 10 years to work, but have lots of fun. Hook up but fall in love. Discover who I truly was, but also try on an endless parade of terrifying identities. The mistakes I made in my 20s would define the rest of my life, the SAT portion of my youth. It had to be perfect, or everything was forfeit.
How absolutely, spectacularly ludicrous! Six years in, I am a far cry from my 20-year-old self, but I’m certainly not the glistening Adult™ I thought I had to be. I am a year and a half out of school, barely a toddler in terms of the “real world” and still trying to decide what I actually want from the dozens of years that await me. I am also certain I’m not alone in this.
Many young adults are lamenting the “loss” of a year due to COVID-19. Instead of pursuing the endless, impossible dream of getting our lives together, we are caught in limbo, putting our dreams on hold to help our communities. While the pressure to go, hustle and create has not let up, our capabilities to do those things takes the backseat to public health, which can be frustrating to those who feel as if their lives are finally starting.
But the emphasis on making one’s 20s the best years of one’s life simply doesn’t hold up in practice. My early 20s were quite fraught, and I spent several years just learning how to form healthy relationships and appreciate myself. I worked menial jobs and trudged through undergrad, worried that I should be doing something else, something important. Other people my age were publishing books, writing comics, fulfilling their dreams. I, at least in my own mind, was wasting what precious youth I had.
But no time spent living is wasted. Even the simplest actions of waking up, taking a shower and eating breakfast have immeasurable value. Judaism emphasizes the sanctity of life, and that doesn’t include an asterisk indicating “only when you are working and busy.” Even God rested, and Shabbat exists so we can rest too. Though the past year was the most difficult in many of our lives, even if we didn’t move forward in our goals, just making it to 2021 is enough. Living each day, breathing through each moment, is improvement.
I’m reminded of Morgan Parker’s exceptional poem, “Diana Ross Finishing a Rib in Alabama, 1990s,” based on this picture. The first line: “Since I thought I’d be dead/by now everything/I do is fucking perfect.” At 26, the sentiment stirs me to the core. Living is perfect, and your 20s are just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to do, but no rush to get there. We have plenty of time.