The 20’s can be a turbulent time of self-discovery. We are often leaving the nest, stepping out of study and into job and financial uncertainty. Moving away from the security and connectedness of tight-knit social networks at uni or high school and into a more solitary work and living environment. Spaces where our minds are free to wander, sometimes to not so nice places. We are leaving behind one life phase and walking into another.
The other day, I found myself at the Uni library. I was bare-foot, on my tippy toes, with music in my ears, scanning the tall shelves for my old child development book. Once I found it, I sat myself in the middle of the isle, and leaning against the dusty old volumes, I opened the book. I scanned the contents for the chapter on early adulthood…
Erik Erikson established the theory of psychosocial development in humans. That is, as we grow and develop, we move through eight distinct stages. According to this theory, healthy human development, means moving through each of these distinct phases successfully. In our teens we begin to move through a stage called Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion (13-19 years). We are exploring our environment, testing waters to see who we want to be and what we want to do with our life. We tend to blend our identities with those around us (ever walked around Uni and wondered why everybody seems to be wearing the same thing?!). Those with good support, who are encouraged to explore and try, will develop a good sense of self and create their own path. Those who are still figuring themselves out, may tend to hang about in this phase a little later into their late 20’s and 30’s. All good though, in life there are tortoises and there are hares. Some of the tortoises just have a few other things to contend with, they have been chilling in their shells for a bit, mulling things over.
The following stage is called Love: Intimacy Vs Isolation (20-24, or 20-40 years). According to Erikson this can be a turbulent time for many. We are still juggling the end of the fidelity stage and still discovering and learning to accept who we are, but starting to form our own opinions, forge our own path and learn where our boundaries lie. However, we are also battling with the desire to form long-lasting bonds with others, while still carrying a need to protect ourselves, from pain or rejection. Real intimacy means showing your true self to someone, without lace and glitter; your fears, dreams, wishes and insecurities. Sometimes, we avoid commitment to others, or push those away who are threatening to our hearts or self, as this feels safer than conflict. Much safer than really opening ourselves up. But, often this isolation causes feelings of unhappiness, loneliness or emptiness. As we move to the end of the Fidelity stage and develop a strong sense of self, we become ready to tackle intimate relationships, whether it be strong friendships or lasting romantic bonds.
In my field I have been reading research that shows while incomes are rising in our age group, general well being and happiness are not, and rates of anxiety and depression, in what should be some of the best years of our lives, are increasing. Cold hard evidence that money does not buy happiness. So curious, I did some more reading about this elusive little construct called happiness.
What actually makes us happy, is feeling connected to the people closest to us. Those intimate relationships with partners, friends and family that make up the Love Stage of our life and the stages thereafter. The real relationships, that aren’t always perfect and sometimes take a bit of work, but can be so fulfilling when you reach a place of understanding with each other. But, we live in an age where careers form the basis of our lives and consume so much of our precious time. With so much study to be done, it is taking us far longer to hit the real world with real world problems to be tackled, and confidence to be gained as a result. It is also taking longer to assume our identity, and so according to Erikson’s theory, longer to start to establish real long-lasting relationships with others. I’m not just talking about the soppy, romantic kind, but true, honest friendships; the stuff that real happiness is made of. Not acquaintances that are fun to hit zee beers with. Friendships that give life meaning and are there to cushion us through the stormy seas ahead. People who see us and love us, just as we are and support us all the way. Those who we can be 'uncool' and 'not alright' around. We all want to feel connected; it is what we live for. Why do you think social media has become such an incredible force in our lives? It is a way that we can stay connected to people…all…the…time. It’s comfort. We never have to feel alone, and we never have to sit in the silence and listen to ourselves.
Recently, I reached some forks in the road that required some serious decision-making. I realised how scared I was to commit to a future, for fear of getting it wrong. I had this ‘one-shot’ mentality. The danger of this idea is that you become paralysed by fear and unable to make any decisions.
So there I was, curled on the floor of the library in my summer dress, staring at a first-year textbook and looking for answers. What do I want to do with the rest of my life? How do I want my life to be? And in a way, an answer prevailed from the words of my professors past. I had got myself a little bit stuck in a life phase, unable to move on to the next. Somewhere along the way I had got so focused on goals and achieving and career, that I was a little unsure of who I was anymore. I was still that spotty teenager, uneasy about my future, unsure of myself, and dubious about where I would fit into the world. I was sitting in the waiting room. There was soft, non-offensive elevator music playing; I had found a cosy spot in the corner and a magazine from last year with dog-eared pages and coffee cup stains. I had made myself right at home there. So I sat for a while, very safely, very quietly, and waited.
Without truly knowing yourself, the good stuff and the other stuff, it is very hard to make decisions about how you want your life to proceed. After talking with a few friends I realised that I was not the only one in this position. Lots of 20 and 30-somethings are in this boat, but nobody wants to talk about it, because these days it’s a bit taboo to admit you don’t know where you’re heading. ‘Hell no, I’m travelling, got the great job and the sweet social life’ and for some that is definitely the case. But for others the translation reads: I’m a tad lost, my job is not what I imagined it would be, and I have 1786 friends on facebook, but not one that I am actually close enough with to tell them how I’m truly feeling; there's nobody there. Your casual quarter life crisis doesn’t make for a very exciting facebook status update. How am I doing facebook?! Well I’m not entirely sure who I am, who I want to be, or what I want to do with my life. Facebook replies: ‘but look at all these great, beautiful people winning the race…just be more like them.’ Thanks Facebook...you complete bastard.
So there I continued to sit in my waiting room. Waiting for some lightning bolt to tell me what to do. But unfortunately, lightning bolts are rare, they are mostly present on movies to save time, and in their place, in real life, are whispers. Small echoing voices coming from behind the neurons of your brain, calling out from behind your heart valves. Muffled chat from under your lung, talking excitedly every time you exhale. A very small voice that is telling you who you are, and who knows exactly what you want to do with your future. We try to ignore them, especially if they are telling us something we don’t want to hear and sometimes they are really really quiet. But they get louder, until one day there is shouting in your head, and then white noise, and you can’t ignore them anymore. You are forced to make a choice and step out of the waiting room and through one of the brightly coloured doors before you, whichever it may be…or risk permanent deafness.
There were whispers in my head. They said, ‘you were the editor of your high school paper, you won awards for writing, you wrote and played your own music, the principle made you read your poetry to the entire school when you were 10. Your teacher sent you on a retreat for gifted writers when you were only 11! Why are you ignoring this part of yourself?' And so Sweet Apple was born. A place to write about anything; to learn how to have opinions and thoughts of my own, and show them to the world without fear of rejection or ridicule. A space to explore, and to learn where to cut the shit and just be honest. I had been ignoring my inner voice, as I was embarrassed to be a writer. It wasn’t enough, it was an art, and at that stage everyone was busy telling artists to get a real job. Nobody needs another hippy sitting in a park painting pictures with words.
I sat at a table and wrote down exactly how I would love my life to be. I then shut the journal, closed my eyes and let my head fall back. For some reason, all I could think of was this memory of my childhood…
Mum took me on a drive out into the country; she had something special to show me. She pulled the car onto the gravel at the side of the road and my mouth dropped open in amazement. Before me, lay paddocks and paddocks of purple wildflowers. Purple wildflowers as far as the eye could see, stretching right up to the rugged blue mountains that silently watched us through the atmosphere. The roar of insects was like a symphony. The stalks were so long they swayed in the lightest breeze, creating quiet waves and swirls of lilac motion. I crawled through the fence and mum took my photo as I stood in the chest-high purple mass. I had never felt more happy and free. Able to appreciate the wonder that surrounded me in that single moment. I hoped that my life would always be full of beautiful moments like this. I reopened the journal, and at the end of the list of life aspirations I scrawled…there will be wildflowers. As I read back what I had written, I realised that there was a rather sizable gap between how I want my life to be and how it is now. I had a choice. I could continue to sit in the waiting room, waiting for something to happen. Or I could take the leap out into the darkness and commit; and then just roll with it...close the gap. The choice to do what I love every day, is the one thing in this life I can control, even if the rest is in the lap of the gods. By releasing the control in other areas of my life, a space was left to see what was mine to change.
So it was decided. Time to stop being a commitment-phobe. Commit to becoming a writer. Commit to the fact that it isn’t going to be easy. That there will be times when it is hard and I will want to run away and I will feel like I am not good enough. But like any good relationship, I will tend the garden to help it grow. And I will be out there weeding, even when the weather is crap…as I have wellies! I was still scared, but I had made the decision...screw it! I am going to journalism school next year. All of a sudden the voices of fear stopped talking and all blinked at each other with blank expressions. Voices that for a while now had been saying; you can’t afford to study another year, how will you support yourself. You might not be any good as a journalist, you might fail and end up living in a cardboard box down on the Wellington waterfront, writing poetry about your dreams of a cheeseburger and fries! Those voices were replaced by a much softer and self-assured voice. Kind, but firm, saying: ‘But what an adventure you will have in your box.’
I wrote this, because I don’t want to be another 20-something, pretending things are peachy all the time. I may look like I have it all figured out on the outside, but I don’t always have my shit together, nobody does. Life is about balance and sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. They say if we want our society to change, we have to lead by example and not be a follower. So, I could sit and fester about the culture we have bred…of comparison, not showing weakness, nothing being enough and shaming other people for being different. Or, I could encourage our generation to be real. Acknowledge that things and people aren’t always how you desire them to be, that is life, but we have choices. We just have to summon the bravery to make them and then let the tide carry us where it may. And know that it is ok to take a bit longer to figure it all out, and equally ok to still be incredibly unsure. But listen to yourself…listen hard. Understand yourself, even the not so pretty parts. Know that it is perfectly fine to feel like your head is going under sometimes and you are struggling to catch a breath. And believe that it is ok to change your mind. Do the thing that makes you feel alive when your alarm goes off in the morning. Don’t worry about those who put you down, they are just as unsure of themselves as you. This is your only life, don’t spend it in the waiting room, the reading material is crap there and the soft music will start to grate your nerves. Do whatever you love and devote time and understanding to the true people in your life…they will become the most stable and treasured thing in your world...the only thing truly worth keeping. And when all is said and done, be ready for the next exciting phase of your life to begin. One full of connection, real friendship, true love and bucket loads of happiness. The place with the Wildflowers.
See ya there friends.
Much love and sayonara for now. This will be my last post for a good long while. So I shall leave you with my new favourite book. Enjoy.
Sweet Apple XX