Dear young friend,
First, can I say I love you? And then that you are beautiful?
These statements seem out of bounds only if you stop reading right here. Such extreme affection will be borne out, I hope, by what follows.
Who are you right now? You are young, still in your twenties. You struggle to make ends meet though everyone in your family has it made or not. You have nothing or an everything which feels like nothing. And because of technologies of instant gratification in our age, walls of images and messages surround you: tweets and likes, hearts and stars sparkling all around, icons hijacked from the world of grade-school doodling. With such mental wallpaper, how can you not believe that if you are not successful – and soon we will return to that tricky word success – and right now, then you will never mount onto the right track?
Let us return to that question: who are you right now? You say you possibly battle some despair about the idea of achievement. Change that to: you are contending with the greatest vortex you have encountered. There you are, pushing gloom down to the mat, knowing that at any second it will so readily spring up and charge at you again. Let it stay prone for a second, even as I want to defer my own longing to crush immediately the word we voice and swallow so readily: a bitter pill, this idea of success. And yet no matter what we do, it insists on returning to our bloodstream with the sole purpose of giving us the jitters. (Do not mistake the jitters for drive.)
But let us pause here with a patience uncharacteristic of our age.
And just take a moment to breathe and say: !!!!
And then too, just to let some other spirit out: Omigod.
Your major problem right now is time, another idea to which we will return.
Consider first the era in which you were born: with so much mugging at you so constantly, Instagram and Twitter, Photoshop and tomorrow’s next startup, you flee for respite elsewhere, only to find a hall of mirrors. Everything has a shelf life, everything can already seem on its way to a flaming early death or a death unheralded by anyone shelf life. But will you walk with me through a little microhistory?
Back in the dawn of a different moment, people called the outcome of one’s life the fruit of inborn destiny, karmic intention, past deeds—or else a visitation of divine grace, bearing triumphant reward or tragic penalty. And yes, it is true that always on the side, harrumphing, were those early ironists — almost any Greek writer, most Shakespeare, so many others – who loved to cartoonishly twist signposts toward the triumphant penalty, the tragic reward.
Over a whole lifetime, once, you were supposed to work your birthright out and in this way learn some greater moral lesson, a way to reap the rightful punishment or recompense of your original state.
Later, in so many parts of the world, you may have been born damned but could try to be good enough to alter your fate: ill fortune could be the trifling of demonic forces. You could confess and pay indulgences, could find ways to free yourself. In the remote villages of Sri Lanka and among evangelicals in the American South, exorcists are still removing demons from villagers in a rite satisfying to all. After the devils get out of your body, you could be free to live life as some greater good proclaimed.
For many, a couple of centuries ago, success solidified as an umbilicus, a bloodroot of privilege, primogeniture, and potentially useful marriages extending down over generations. Think of Chekhov’s plaintive moment in “The Cherry Orchard” when the family’s inheritance is to be sold, the garden gone, and Anya consoles her mother: ‘We will plant a new garden, finer than this one. You will see it and understand. Then joy, quiet deep joy, will sink into your heart like the sun at evening.’
If you were a serf without any advantage of a good bloodline, forget having much consolation. But if you did the right thing in being born landed gentry, however dispossessed, you might yet find an advantageous marriage or find yourself on new holdings. The blessed so easily stood on the hard work or easy privilege of those before them, reaching sideways, while the unlucky fell off the side of a flat earth, never to be seen or heard from again.
At some point, the Puritans came along to twiddle the masses, exporting their grand paradox to many continents: in this scheme, you had to do good work but also be one of the elect to see your good fortune emerge. Because of this, success started to appear as a mountain. With slow and careful steps, you might round bends, forever seeing above you the peak of your desire: if you were elect, you might yet achieve the summit. A great impossible task, one worth striding toward. The Daoists conserved matter, seeing the emptiness of the world before them, still finding meaning in engaging with cleanliness in their tasks; the Puritans believed gilded matter to be a sign of divinity.
And then came the Horatio Alger myth—born of crowded cities set down among the plains—a bruised lovechild of Puritanism. The Alger story, its rags to riches, shone with the opportunism the mountain-hikers knew well. Alger proposed that certain exceptional characters could show the resilience of springing from bad social circumstance to rise above the masses: in this scheme, nothing had to be done about the suffering masses. As with the Puritans, all you had to do was be one of the elect.
If we were to chart the above in the style of an ancient map, a Horatio Alger character would be working hard, at map’s center in his big boots, alive through much of the twentieth century and off into the twenty-first. In the distance you could sight a few persistent mountain-hikers, slow and careful climbers, who may or may not believe in the idea of election and exceptionalism. Far off the coast you would spot lively scions of privilege yachting around landmasses within fine seas of self-reference.
Here is something which you may or may not bemoan: the era in which you find yourself made the above map as vintage as it sounds.
Why? Because of the Internet, which blasted onto our scene like our own crowd-sourced but hungry ghost fairy godmother.
With fluted tones, this godmother came promising vast democracy: how much power she held in her silver wand! Land could be had by all, good fortune by the plebes.
She offered the possibility of instantly anointing you, a person born of castle, mansion, trailer, ghetto, slum. Let treasure and blandishments go to whomever knew best how to approach her!
With the Internet as our fairy godmother, forget arriving on 42nd Street bearing a cardboard suitcase with great dreams. Because far before that moment, in this galaxy far too close, the fairy godmother could pretend interest in the innards of your suitcase. What a shimmery, chimerical being she is, that godmother with her wand ready to wield fame or ignominy, wearing her costume over a hungry ghost.
Here, perhaps, we should have some space for your own comment section:
The fairy godmother: WTF?
The fairy godmother: Why not?
Take this idea: the truest story of creation in all its permutations is I am. And can we admit that you, as you approach the Internet, do not sing the tune that really belongs to you, the song of I am but rather, querulous, you approach that woman whispering, secretly or openly: do I exist?
And since do I exist? is not exactly the burst of exaltation that impelled Whitman to sing of cities or Dickinson to murmur to all time, you find yourself feeling a little lost.
Do I exist? Do you mean me? you ask now, reading this. (Yes you do. Heart icon.)
So my advice to you is this: that you stare into the hollow eyes of the hungry ghost and undo its magic by asking two categories of questions:
How does this era in which you approach full-blown maturity act like a fake best friend? How does that hungry ghost so fiendishly know your preferences, your musical genome, your consumerist profile, your friends and frenemies?
And why does everyone get to be an authority, the prize going to the loudest and most subjective? What happened to the quiet ripening of bruised fruit in a forgotten orchard? The aging of wine in dented oak barrels?
If you were to distill all messages, covert and overt, coming your way: you are forever meant to exist outside of time, starting right now! Without any bend toward the friction of time, you are supposed to be shiny, new, ripped from a fashion magazine. Even in your most intimate moments you should use moves from prefabricated shots of moments simulating passion. You are meant to give up the natural questioning of life for the calcified opinion.
Imagine that the Internet has turned much of your twentysomething life into a board game: the one who shouts most ringingly from the rooftops wins!
And yes, there are vulnerable groundbreakers around, books and shows and messages which show that you are not alone in your vulnerability. But in the way they turn their skin inside out, they can also make you shiver.
I have some other questions for you, beautiful friend:
What is sacred?
Do you have to get naked?
Must your diary go live?
Is that what you have to do to be successful?
Make of your inside-out-skin a bridge for others to tramp upon? Use the desire of those younger or older to hoist yourself up?
You try to surf over such difficulties but they come at you from every direction.
And of course you have, coming at you, a host of other demands on your attention:
When should you have kids? Should you use the pill, should you marry, should you leave him or her, were you just left or not, should you go online and hook up with many people? Should you sow your wild oats or stay safe and alone, feeling so lonely you would prostitute yourself, do nothing, do everything, dance a hipster striptease, go to the gym, take an all-night bus to see people in another town, people you used to live with, blow money you don’t have?
What gives meaning and pleasure, what can you do forever without a built-in epithet, will you turn into your parents, what activity could you do daily that will work within the capitalist framework?
Should you hike solo for a year or save up money working retail or as a paralegal or should you go south and take ayahuasca and later write about it?
Do you hate to network, are you too introverted, do you talk to the wrong people, why do the right people never call, what talent do you really have, don’t other people get lucky breaks, do you have enough energy, will you never get a lucky break again?
Will you never be able to do (x) again or are you creating a life in which (x) occurs daily?
In answer, consider that a natural chaos attends the twenties.
Chaos: (insert Internet-gleaned definition).
We live in an era in which your godmother acts as if her wand is the only wand. And her wand has deluded you into believing that if you are not “successful” now, at your biological peak, nothing will ever quite work out.
Instead, my advice to you is this: befriend time as your ally. Recognize this time as a special one and let that be the first magical night out with your friend, all lanterns glowing on the water. Even if it seems impossible, behave as if you have enough of it: the trite counsel holds true – be where you are. All the many strands you may be exploring now – or just the one – will be redeemed later. I promise.
For a while in my twenties, it might be fair to say I held no 40-week job longer than two months. Of course I doubted myself, leaving jobs so readily, not knowing that the perception gleaned from those jobs would help me so greatly in later years. Not only that, some social good: down the road I was more able to help others, whether with advice, connections or some intangible.
Which is to say that this precious time of yours is for apprenticeship as much as ventriloquism. For patient mastery or grasshopper-like jumps, for learning as much about the world and its different environs as you can. Know that all the seeds you sow in your twenties you will reap. Don’t worry if the seeds do not make sense immediately. Later life will command you to stay rooted, and then your task will be to still view the world with the bursting energy and curiosity you have now, while having more of the container around you that we can call wisdom.
So much about your time now has to do with acting as if you might already have the container. So much of who you will later be is apparent now to the right set of eyes. Looking at you now, your elders can often testify to your future self, which only to you is hidden by some scrims: self-doubt, questioning, a mind with a penchant toward comparison.
I would like to distill some of the rest of what I would say into a list endemic of our age, with the hope that its pocket-size friendliness might be helpful to you:
-Do not lose yourself in one primary relationship;
-At least give that primary relationship some time;
-It is not bad to sow some wild oats because
-if you think you may even possibly want to have children, think a little ahead with some intention about what age you might want to begin.
-Travel if you love it. Now is the time. later is too, but now will inform you in some interesting way.
-Don’t network just for the sake of networking, which feels ultimately like a hollow enterprise and will leaving you feeling inauthentic. Enjoy the doorman and then also the job interviewer: find some kind of heart connection with both.
-It is the calcification of any a priori idea about a situation which will make you prematurely old.
-Train your mind away from obsessive loops.
-Start your day not by texting or emailing but with something that helps you find calm. This act might involve looking around you and noticing the bounty and health of your life. It doesn’t matter. You need some grounding. Life is exciting; the sap high; you need a container.
-The very psyche that might be putting you through the wringer has an urgent message. See if you can step back a moment and pause to receive it. Is there a way you can see yourself as if you were a compassionate mother on your deathbed, holding yourself with love, embracing this young, questioning self, whether she is right now most commonly found head under the covers or grinning and bearing it? Try to hear and understand one simple message about her right now.
-Back to that comparative mind: consider envy a useful signpost about something you really would like to try, a mask over a seed of your potential.
-The romantic regrets will probably not be endless so don’t necessarily listen to the fear of them all the time.
-Back to that idea of success: whose is it? Who told you to make that idea? Who are the failures and successes in your family line and set of acquaintances? Jung says the single greatest influence on the child are the unfulfilled wishes of the parent. What are your parents’ or grandparents’ unfulfilled desires?
-Don’t be shy about asking for help form those about in the form of counsel, reference letters, a door opening. Everyone has been in your position once. Know that most people like to be helpful. They see your request as much less shameful or problematic than you might feel in forwarding it on.
You will later love this charmed twentysomething, this despairing twentysomething, this beautiful person with all her talent, confidence, insecurity, intelligence. That youthful person who might be mistaking talent for a calling or vice versa. But that youth is already who you will be for the rest of your life, even if one way of feeling and expressing it belong uniquely to this moment.
Why not listen now, love that girl or boy now, give that person the gift of balance?
Because chaos, right now, is your domain.
Embrace it. Omigod. Like. All of it. Why not? Now. Right now. The world is already yours.
One of your many future admirers
Edie Meidav is an award-winning novelist based out of Amherst, MA. She is the author of Lola, California, Crawl Space, and The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and has written for many publications including Zyzzyva, The Village Voice, and The Millions. Currently she is on faculty at UMass Amherst’s lauded MFA program.