The Brain On 23

We are the 23-year-olds. We are the ones squirming in our chairs at the office because we still feel awkward in our grown-up clothes. We strut through city streets with eyes cast toward our screens, desperately seeking any source that will tell us the decisions we’ve made are valid. We work hard in jobs we aren’t sure we want to make those fancy degrees feel worth it, and we date people we aren’t sure we love to make everything feel less lonely.

We spend hours drinking wine on apartment floors, promising one another that those who broke our hearts will not own us forever. We zone out in grad school classrooms or type away in junior offices or teach English in Rwanda, all the while wondering if we are supposed to be somewhere else.

We are 23, and hangovers hurt now. Most of our conversations these days center on assuring one another we are going to be okay. We are proud of each other but hard on ourselves. When a friend does something as simple as cooking a food more complex than pasta, we applaud her, yet we berate ourselves for not yet having a corner office or a bestselling memoir or a thriving startup.

We dance all night to Taylor Swift because she understands. We love who we want, and we hate labels. We are not in college anymore, and we’ve just become too old to crash their parties. Everyone we know no longer lives on the same block, and we long for the days of running back and forth between houses at 1 a.m. We have few obligations, yet we are always stressed, wondering if life will ever be more certain.

Our breakups never end because social media keeps reminding us of our exes. Even when we block them or unfriend them, their names are bound to pop up on our news feeds below pictures they’ve liked, and their faces assault us when mutual friends post albums. We hate online dating, but we all do it because it feels like the only way. We spend as much time swiping on Tinder as we do with actual human beings.

We are 23, and we constantly try to tell ourselves to stop complaining and enjoy our youth. Life isn’t really that bad. We have our families, our friends and our health. We are young and vibrant and the world is ours. We are closer to our parents than the 23-year-olds who came before us, and many of us are lucky enough to still have their support. We have the time to go to bars and be with friends. We get to party and work and not worry about others depending on us. Yet all this fear remains, and it melts us into pessimists. Because life is pretty good, and still we can’t stop worrying. So we worry even more about what will happen to us when there are real things to worry about.

We hear the grown-ups urge us to calm down. They tell us it will all fall into place, that if they could give advice to their younger selves it’d be to send the butterflies away and have a good time before age catches up with us. We hear them say these things, but we don’t believe them. Things don’t just fall into place. We have to put them there, and we feel like every second we spend streaming movies from our bedrooms is a second we are not putting ourselves out there. Yet we stream on.

We waste time the same way we did in college, only now doing so makes us uncomfortable. We are at the point in our lives where we have realized the futility of sitting around watching Gilmore Girls episodes we’ve seen one hundred times, but we lack the resources and maturity to actually do something to change that. We are too old to go out every night, but we are too young to stay in and do nothing. We want to be more productive and live a more worthwhile existence, but we haven’t quite figured out how. We don’t yet have children or spouses or secure jobs or whatever it is that would make us feel like we had more of a reason to live. We don’t necessarily want those things, but we do want something. So we sit in this limbo, wishing there was something less worthless to do than watch Luke and Lorelei argue over coffee, yet continuing to do it while the butterflies flutter around our stomachs.

We are 23, and even though we are worried all the time, we still don’t want to get older. We never want to reach the point where we cannot be considered kids, even though the studies we read say people are actually happier in their 30s. Because we may be scared, but we are still 23, and boy do we have fun.

We try to stop punishing ourselves for not becoming the next Lena Dunhams and Mark Zuckerbergs, but we overlook the fact that they are the exception to the rule of 23. Because for most of us, at 23 life detonates as we suddenly forget why we chose that major or moved to this city or loved that person. All we want is to understand who we are, and we can’t. Only time will tell us.

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