Following the celebration of any birthday is the inevitable question, “So, do you feel any different?” My habitual answer, “No, not really,” usually handily dismisses it.
This year, though, the question has continued to resonate in my head for weeks afterward. Perhaps it has lingered because my birthday hit the third Monday of November like a paintball, messily splattering its guts, congratulations, and celebrations across the surrounding days. It was the natural result of not having a Facebook, being a busy second-year with equally busy second-year friends, and having the special day unceremoniously arrive on the same day as a physics midterm and a biology lab. But this lingering probably has most to do with my turning the big two-oh.
“When I turned 20, I thought I would be like the sun/ Brilliantly rising up,” sings Korean rock band Jaurim in “Icarus.” Twenty does not signify any more tangible change than any other year. Unlike 18 or 21, it is not a civil, as much as a personal, coming of age: I am no longer a teenager. Already governmentally acknowledged, I am now socially and officially an adult. It’s time for me to play in the big leagues, and it has always seemed natural that I’d enter at the peak of my game—somehow taller and thinner, with my hair chopped into a chunky, stylish bob, lips dyed bright red, striding confidently forward with the crisp click-clack of a pair of heels. The physical reinvention I imagined signified a mental rebirth, an internal clarity of self and purpose.
Of course, I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that this change would suddenly happen overnight so that I would emerge a fully formed butterfly on my 20th birthday. But perhaps I had accepted the sameness of each past birthday because I believed that they would cumulate into something that no longer felt the same. And maybe I’d be more willing to accept the sameness of this birthday, too, if I still believed that.
A friend recently told me that her parents had confided to her that, inside, they still felt like they were 12. And I felt deeply saddened, because it described how I felt too well. Of course, I’m not 12. I’ve lived and I’ve learned for eight additional years. But my day-to-day experiences feel frustratingly unchanged. I’m still too scared to cut my hair short because I think my face is too round, so it hangs at the safe medium length it’s had since middle school; I still often waddle through my day in a T-shirt and sweats. So, at this personal milestone, 20, what does it really mean to still feel 12?
A friend—a fellow premed—recently told me she could only see herself as happy in a future where she would be able to see the world. Tired of feeling weighed down, she saw freedom in this hypothetical globetrotting future. There are many times at this college when I feel that I am paying my dues now for the future I desire. I am chomping at the bit of the present, straining against its chains so that I may rocket forward into the bright light at the end of the tunnel. But the further I reach for that light, the harder I fall back.
This university seems full of people who have perfected the art of valuing the journey as much as the destination—or at least the appearance thereof. Their hearts already set on their academic futures, each new thing they learn each new day seems only to renew their passion and commitment to their field of choice. Perhaps what I imagined myself to be at 20 is not far from these people—my purpose and therefore my self clearly realized. But the life of the mind does not come so easily to everyone.
About once every couple weeks, I’ll have a sort of revelation in my Civ class: “Wait, this stuff is interesting. These are readings you’ve been waiting to study for years. You are living the life (of the mind).” But as I settle into my third-floor Regenstein cubicle each day after class, I often find myself cradling my head in my arms as I work my way through yet another reading or p-set. On the days when I find free moments, my frustration is paralyzing as I write, then read my leaden words, nowhere close to the clarity I need. For some, writing may be a release, flowing in an effortless and gratifying stream, but for me it is slow, frustrating work, chipping at the stone wall between what I am and what I want to be.
In all aspects of my life, there is a disconnect between meaningful progress and the seemingly meaningless days that make it up. I want this disconnect bridged; I want to be released from the weights of my daily, irrelevant stresses and mistakes. I want to be free to pursue what I care about full-heartedly.
At 20, I thought that my present and future would be perfectly linked in a direct trajectory, and each day would be covered in long strides of progress, but instead even when I know what I want, I still feel that I go through my days confused. At 20, I thought my life would be filled with purpose and forward motion, my days lived in crisp Technicolor, but instead they are lost in a grayish malaise. At 20, I wanted to be able to stand up and begin to deliver my note to the world, beautiful, long, and pure, but instead I’m still tuning.
I’ve struggled with my insecurities, my flaws, myself for 20 years, with the expectation that one day, maybe soon, I’d come to a realization, a resolution. Now, at 20, I’ve had my realization: that there may be none. Twenty or 40 years down the road, I may still feel 12, weighed down by all those small things that aren’t supposed to matter.
Eleanor Hyun is a second-year in the College majoring in English.