-F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
Oh, Francis. If only I could say the same. This last line from a book I recently pulled from the towering stack on my desk couldn’t have come at a better time. A semi-autobiographical tale of Fitzgerald’s life through boyhood at prep school, young adulthood at Princeton and beyond, it has all the confusion, romance, ambition and hopeless dreaming that seem to chronically characterize life between the ages of 18 and 25. And as someone very much in the thick of it, I can relate.
It’s funny how much emphasis there is in popular culture upon the mid-life crisis, which stereotypically happens somewhere in a person’s late 40s, but not upon this disastrous period of life I like to think of as the painful process of leaving the nest and learning to fly. Supposedly, these early 20s years are meant to be the best years of our lives—when we will forge the college memories we will forever treasure in our hearts, and experience the blessed freedom and bliss of self-exploration and experimentation before we arrive in the “real world” and submit ourselves to the grind of job, taxes, family, and all that good stuff. Not to mention, apparently we’ll never look this good again so we’d better make the most of it before our hair starts to fall out and our skin starts to sag.
Fantastic. Just, fantastic.
I know that I myself feel enormous pressure to be constantly “making the most of it.” Whatever that means. Probably something along the lines of: I should try every and any activity I’m interested in right now, because I won’t have the freedom to later; I should do my best in my academic work, otherwise I won’t get a good job later; I should go out to as many parties as I can, as life will be boring later. The list goes on and on. I ask you, how on earth am I supposed to figure out who I, Lauren, am amidst all this should-ing?
I’m an inherently anxious sort of person, and admittedly not everyone has the privilege of being quite so crazy. I’ll continue to worry about things, from the trivial to the significant, for the rest of my life—it’s simply part of my nature. But I’m certainly not the only one who feels so much pressure to enjoy and explore but also to excel—particularly among my peers here at Princeton and other top universities. We’ve worked so hard just to get to where we are today, let alone spend time figuring out the rest of what life has in store.
Closeted eating disorders, nights out spent in a stupor of binge drinking, cruelly competitive social scenes and compulsive over-commitment are just a few of the common delights found on campuses like ours. These luxurious green and gothic spaces, with tradition wafting through the very air, are filled with young adults supposed to be the world’s finest and brightest. Surely, something seems amiss when so many smart people do so many stupid things.
There’s a clear expectation of us that as driven young whippersnappers we will and should go on to do “great things”—a painfully loosely defined term. That expectation comes within an environment which praises only constant achievement, progress and perpetual busy-ness. If you aren’t getting all As and filling your resume with suitably impressive-sounding accomplishments, you will not live up to what you are supposed to be, will not get the best internship, scholarship or job. Oh, and by the way, you should be having the time of your life as well, living it up, finding yourself and perhaps even meeting the person you will marry!
So a year ago, when I found myself regularly sobbing uncontrollably in my dorm room, feeling more scared, desperately alone and hopeless than ever before in my life, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing wrong.
I’ve always done well in school. I’m part of the coveted Ivy League, my grade point average is in the hallowed top 15 percent; I was accepted into one of the elite antiquated social clubs. I was recently informed that I could earn thousands of dollars selling my eggs because of these credentials. I haven’t exactly been a candidate for many justifiable woe-is-me, woe-is-my-life kinds of moments.
But, ever so surreptitiously, those years of jumping through hoops defined by demanding prep schools and then Princeton left me deeply exhausted. My intellectual spark had dimmed to a faint glow, my mind and body were run down, making me begin to question why I was even in school in the first place—an alarming thought to the girl whose worst vice to date was being called teacher’s pet. The seemingly simple process of choosing a major that spring plunged me into an unending spiral of profound panics. What do I love? What do I want to do with my life? How can I possibly feel so miserable when the world keeps telling me how successful and lucky I am?
I called my dad last March as what can safely be characterized as a steaming wreck. My abdomen screamed with pain, as it had been for many months despite my best efforts to ignore it and plaster a smile on my face, frantically powering through with my over-scheduled daily life as if nothing were amiss. In response, my body resorted to more drastic measures to get my attention. Suddenly my racing, obsessive thoughts about paper deadlines and summer internship applications morphed into intrusive and frightening images of loneliness, depression and my own death that robbed me of sleep, and hijacked my entire reality. It is a truly disturbing feeling to be gripped by fear of dangers that exist only in your own thoughts.
After that call, my father drove six hours straight to come pick me up. We sat in the car outside of Frist, and I broke the silence by telling him I wasn’t ok. That I needed him there to feel safe. That I wanted to step off the treadmill of constant achievement, come home and figure it all out. He turned away, attempting to hide the tears trickling down his cheeks, and I knew I’d made the right decision. It’s still the only time I’ve ever seen him cry.
So I packed up my room, handed back my prox and took a year off to get better, to think, and assess the deep question we all face at some point or another: how I’d like to live my life. Basically, I had my mid-life crisis about 20 years too early. It was, and continues to be, the quarter life crisis.
In the past twelve months I’ve turned to a variety of sources in the vague hope of wisdom and answers. Buddha and the Dalai Lama. My grandmother and my old nannies. A psychiatrist, a gastroenterologist and a homeopathic nurse. My horse’s dark brown eyes, my closest friends and total strangers I’ve met along the way. Thoreau, Wikipedia, F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and my sketchbook. The ocean, the stars, my breath and my body. I’ve been loudly announcing my existential conundrums to everyone I meet in the hope that they will share their own in return, and together we can make some progress.
And the more I read, hear and ponder, the more I realize that self-knowledge is really one of the most important things we can seek for fulfillment in our lives. Without a sound basis of knowing who you are and what kind of life you want, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, what school you go to, or how good everything sounds to the average observer—you won’t be happy. It can be so easy to fool yourself by being so “successful” in the eyes of the world, especially this never-sleeping, information-gobbling, ever-connected world of ours, that you lose track of your own happiness.
Identity and contentment aren’t found in the accomplishments on your resume. You can pepper the document with numbers, prestigious degrees and accolades, fiddle with the margins, and change the font size all you like, but you won’t learn more about who you are or what you’re here to do.
I know I have (hopefully) a hell of a lot of life yet to live, but from here on out I want to make decisions according to who I am, not who I think I should be. Corny as it sounds, I feel lucky that I’ve been forced to hit rock bottom and climb my way back into the light now, at 20; to rein in all of those pesky shoulds flapping wildly through my brain.
I’m certainly not there yet. But I might finally be on the right track.