Please help me. I am very nearly twenty-one years old, and very nearly at the end of my undergraduate degree. Within the next month, I will have completed my exams and all but cast fate to the wind; within two months I will know the results and forever be on my merry way. The outcome is not the issue – I’m aiming for a First Class Honours, but it could also be a fail depending on the mitigation of my extenuating circumstances (my mother has been battling a brain tumour for the last year). I know I will make something of myself whatever happens, partly due to the personal strength and knowledge I have gained through reading your articles, both on The Gloss and The Grindstone.
The problem is that I am absolutely terrified to a level that I have not experienced before, and I am a pretty anxious person at the best of times. Nothing in my life is stable at the moment, I do not know if I will pass or fail, I do not know if I will have a job, I do not know where I will be living, I do not know anything. I only really became aware of my life while at university, having been somewhat oblivious to it before: I existed, but nothing more. Now I am faced with the shocking realization that I only have a certain amount of time on this earth and it is going to happen whether I am ready or not. I have never been scared of death, but it seems to have dawned on me now that I am not immortal and that my life will continue, I will grow up and grow old until I stop. While you’re at school or university, you’re still someone’s baby. Then suddenly you graduate and they make you an adult, and you can’t pretend that life isn’t happening around you anymore. It’s not that I’m not mature, or competent, I manage my finances, my studies and my health just fine, I am just terrified.
I am not certain what I’m asking you for, other than any advice that you might be able to give.
Obviously, I’ve renamed the writer after a young and ballsy (although delusional!) teenage French warrior. Let’s start with this:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
That line — referenced on last week’s Mad Men — is from the poem Ozymandias, which you can read here.
So, let’s just get all this “humans are mortal” business out of the way first. (Holy shit, now I’m writing about the meaning of life. My last article was about how to succeed on OKCupid.)
As for fear of death, I think civilization only exists because we don’t think about it too much, except that we’re always thinking about it, and that’s why we build buildings or have babies or try to conquer all of Europe (for instance).
As an atheist, I tend to find comfort in photos of galaxies. How can you look at these (I Google image-searched “NASA galaxy photos”) and really think that humanity is all that important, or that your mistakes are going to cause the world to come crashing down? We’re just talking meat. We are messy, unorganized biological things; we spend 1/3 of our lives unconscious and don’t even really understand why, have to go to the bathroom more often than would be convenient, and we give birth — often fatally — in pools of blood. Oh, and we kill each other all the time. It’s a horror show!
According to Dave Enyeart, “If you want to know what happens to you when you die, go look at some dead stuff.” God Is Not Great writer Christopher Hitchens faced death admirably, and didn’t even regret his drinking and smoking.
So, live an ethical life with as much pleasure and panache as you can. It just so happens that humans are funny creatures: pursuing pleasure directly doesn’t work for any longer than about the length of a spring break. The ancient Greeks had it right: there are higher and lower pleasures. Living an ethical life with pleasure and panache requires doing all kinds of things that aren’t pleasurable in the moment, like learning to read, and going to college, and helping people, and building human connections so you can feel a sense of security. (See Bullish Life: Does Happiness Demand That We All Just Chill?.)
I probably can’t solve an existential quandary, but I can tell you that there’s a bell curve — you think about mortality a lot when you hit adulthood, and then I think it just doesn’t bother you too much for several decades, and then you get old and think about it a lot again. Here’s a thoughtful and gentlewomanly book about death and aging that I have not read because I’m saving it for when I get older: Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill. Here’s a NYTimes article about Athill; she’s now 94.
Oh, and the fact that your mother has a brain tumor probably has something to do with these thoughts you’re having, don’t you think? You sound completely normal.
Meaningless stress helps no one.
Jeanne says she is “a pretty anxious person at the best of times.” I’ve written about this a lot. I’ve had my stress meter reset by the failure of my company when I was 23. Please see Bullish: Overcoming Perfectionism (and Still Being a Special Unicorn).
If you fail at something, or let someone else down, nothing is improved by your beating yourself up about it.
When someone disappoints you, do you ever think, “I hope she’s sitting on her ass, doing nothing, thinking about what a bad person she is”? Probably not. Either you think, “That’s too bad,” or you want an apology, or you wish that person would get up and actually fix the problem, or else you don’t actually think about it that much at all.
There’s no prize for suffering.
For instance: This column is really late. You know what stupid thing I did for about an hour before catching on? I moped around the apartment all grumpy because I didn’t get enough done today, and told my fiancé that I couldn’t go to bed until I did some more things. “What things?” he wanted to know. “Just … more.” I knew I wasn’t going to write an article at 11:30pm, but I felt that staying up and doing computer things (at a standing desk, no less!) was proper penance for my unproductiveness.
And then I walked by my espresso machine and realized I was being an idiot; it would be both more pleasurable and more productive to go to bed, get up early, drink some coffee, and be more productive tomorrow. Staying up late having unproductive time now is actually stealing productive time from the morning. Suffering is not inherently virtuous.
If you feel all kinds of stress and tension and anxiety about the “real world” (as though up until this point you have been made of smoke effects and optical illusions!), suffering isn’t going to pay in advance for your mistakes. You’ll fuck things up at some point. As long as you don’t kill anyone, you might as well enjoy yourself whenever you can.
Adulthood is relative.
Being a 22 year old college graduate out in the world feels really adult. It’s impressive when you go back to your old high school and help direct the school play or whatnot. But to lots of other people, you’re still a kid. You can fuck up pretty bad and later just blame it on being 22.
Freedom to fuck up means that now is a really good time to start a company, travel, or make other big moves. Or just buckle down and get ahead of all your peers. (See Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)
Also, your mother has a brain tumor. If you accomplished nothing for the next year while you moved back home and helped out, that would be fine. If you go get a job but are really distracted because of your mom, that would be very understandable also. Other people are mostly too concerned with their own business to judge your accomplishments anyway. In fact, people don’t judge each other’s accomplishments as often as you’d think anyway; throughout life in general, you’re much more likely to be judged by your appearance, articulateness, and ability to make other people feel good about themselves.
Plenty of older folks out there, if they read TheGloss, would surely think it’s adorable that someone my age is giving advice. Lots of people think you’re not really grown up until at least fifty. It’s all relative.
Your options have narrowed a bit. Great!
It was around the time of life you are now experiencing that I became aware of shutting off certain possibilities basically forever. If you don’t go to medical school now, you probably won’t. It’s too late to be a fighter pilot; your ballerina ship sailed long ago.
In reality, most of those options still exist. Some people go to medical school in their thirties and beyond. Those options just have a higher price. Switching “careers” when you’re 23 is nothing; doing it at 45 is often perceived as something akin to a painful divorce and remarriage.
But closing down options is just fine. Most people in the world don’t have those kind of options in the first place; being able to “be anything you set your mind to” is not a natural state of humanity. Too many options can cause paralysis.
You live in a very privileged nation. (From your spelling, probably Canada, the UK, or Australia, in which case you may also enjoy free dental care!) Your options are narrowing from “more things than you could ever think about” to “a fuckload of things”! It feels weird, but it actually makes your life much more manageable.
Treat terror like PMS
PMS is a thing that happens to you. It’s separate from you. You’re not a “PMS-haver”; you’re a person with a temporary and annoying condition.
Similarly, do not think of yourself as “terrified,” as though that is somehow part of you. Surely, you’re not terrified 24/7. At some moments, you are crippled by fear, but at other moments, you are eating cereal.
So, think of yourself as someone who periodically has bouts of this annoying condition called “terror.” How long does a bout of terror actually last? Fifteen minutes?
When you have the experience of terror, separate it from yourself: Oh look, terror has come to visit me. Roll your eyes: how annoying! Say calmly to someone, “Oh, how annoying. I’m having terror symptoms again,” as though you were reporting on a fresh pimple or the first sign of menstrual cramps. Hell, maybe take some Midol and hope for a placebo effect.
And then get back to work.
Most of the things you’re worried about don’t kill you or put you in jail. Also, no matter how your early twenties go, you can always explain them away (I was young and stupid! Oh, my wild and crazy youth!), because, while 21 seems old to you, to other people, it’s basically still childhood but with sex. No one over 35 thinks people are really all that responsible for what they did at 21.
When entering the adult world, it’s hard to think about everything at once. Fortunately, in your early twenties, people think it’s cute if you live in an apartment with no furniture. One thing at a time. Also, keep in mind that many of the adults around you are actually getting a little dumber every year they’re out of school, so you have some advantages. (See Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College.)
Good luck! Everything’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine.
originally published on The Grindstone