Twenty-five years ago, I was a different person. At the age of 21 you are just in the process of figuring out who you are. 21 year olds are stupid, green. They seem so sure of themselves, but they really aren’t. More times than we would like to admit, at that phase of our adulthood, we are still running on autopilot of what our parents, or usually our friends prepared us for. Our values come from our community, our peers, our places of worship, and the books and movies and television we like and relate to. All of it is our care package that runs out pretty quickly when we are first on our own.
We begin to experiment with things. Drugs. Sex. Religions. The things we read. Some of us might go through a phase where we only listen to indie rock or watch foreign films. Thank goodness for getting that our of our systems pretty quick. In the middle of this experimentation phase, we often think we’ve got the code cracked. We’ve done what no other adult in the history of ever has done. We have solved the problem that has affected generations stretching back to the beginning of time. We know better.
Or we think we do well enough to partner up and reproduce.
There’s a thing called emotional maturity. Some of us are stuck at a certain age. Most adults we know are walking around in ageing bodies with a ten year old or a fifteen year old at the controls. Many uphappy relationships stem from the fact that one partner finds themselves raising the other.
I went through that phase too, mutually raising the other partner. The only reason it was “mutual” is because I dumbed myself down enough to need to be raised from time to time myself. Mostly because of fears. Like I said, it was mutual participation, so it became a contest as to who could be the most helpless sometimes. I hope that was as much of a phase as watching movies where mimes play tennis or death plays chess with someone.
We, as humans, are awfully good at putting each other in boxes. We recognize patterns and categorize accordingly. My ex used to say I was just like her father. Only that couldn’t have been further from the truth. She wanted me to be just like her father, and dragged me into that kicking and screaming. In the end, I considered it. It would have been easier to just step into someone else’s box.
I went to the dentist one time while I was married. It wound up being for a full-mouth debridement. They scraped 20 years of crud off my teeth. That was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Underneath, I had beautiful teeth. No cavities. Just some gums that needed some TLC. I had a hard time taking care of myself or putting myself first. Though my wife at the time went to the dentist, got new cell phones, drove the new cars, etc., I made sure she and the kids were taken care of first. If I didn’t, I heard about it. That also became a competition. She would say she was nearly blind and needed new glasses, when I was the one working. I needed glasses to work, but I had the same prescription since college.
When I finally left, I started dating someone who gave me a taste of being selfish. She told me I needed to see an eye doctor because one night when I went to her apartment to go for a walk, I nearly walked right past her. I couldn’t see her face in the dark. I got glasses and I could see again. Work was easier. Writing was easier. Driving…was much safer.
Later, I went in for a teeth cleaning and they found a cavity. My first. I was 40. The strange jump my life had taken from being 21 and just starting off at figuring out my life brought me back to 21. I mean in the meantime, I had worked regularly, was in the process of raising three kids, but I had not done some things for myself that many adults take for granted. I was terrified of getting a tooth filled.
The woman I was seeing told me to close my eyes and think of her holding my hand if I got scared. Then that was comforting. That someone cared. Someone had that kind of compassion. Someone wanted to take care of me for a change. I felt better. Today, I’m not the same. I’ve been catching up.
Back then, I had never gone anywhere on my own, much less booked a hotel room, plane tickets, bought a car from a dealership, or done much for myself. By myself. Nearly every experience was raw, new, and scared the shit out of me. I had been captive. I would say my wife had done all of those things, but she hadn’t. She had her mother book rooms and car rentals and plane tickets. Her mother was always center stage, from buying our house to our cars, and so much more. We were dependent on her, which meant whenever we wanted to do something different, we had to clear it with her, since she was the one doing all the leg work. She was the only one who was allowed to watch the kids. My ex was just as much at her mercy as I was.
The things I was good at were taking kids to the ER in the middle of the night. Taking care of sick kids. Fighting with my wife and trying to hold a marriage together for a very long time. I became very good at shutting down. At blowing things out of proportion to suit the narrative. Everyone else was bad. We were poor and always going to be that way. Everyone was always out to screw us over.
I’m learning now that your 40s get to be a new time in your life where you decide what your values are. It’s sad that for so many of us it takes this long. We finally give ourselves permission. The last several years has been trying to unlearn a lot of what I was taught wrong in my youth. Mostly by two young people who had a child together and were faking it themsleves. Living in a small town. Under the disapproval of family who had their minds made up about the world and our place in it. Like I said, this stuff goes back generations.
Some things still make me anxious, but not as much anymore. I figure it out. I like to problem solve. In my forties, I’m learning to worry less about what others think of you. Chances are if they’ve made that call already, it’s not your problem. It’s theirs. I’ve been held back from doing so many of the things I have wanted because I’ve been afraid of what other people might think. Every single one of us has done something new for the first time, and most of us have failed spectacularly at it. If we keep getting up and trying again, we usually get better at it. There’s no other way to master something. And if we were instantly perfect at doing it, maybe we didn’t aim very high?
Very few of us are born into a position that is guaranteed success. I’ve met people who were and they are a mess. When you are born into your life, you’re no different than that 21 year old who is just going by everything they were taught. You aren’t learning it for yourself. Those are the kind of people who aren’t happy. They aren’t sad either. They have a weird feeling they cannot describe because they’ve never wanted for anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want more and not just be able to have it. And they can’t understand that not everything we have is even something we want. That wisdom comes from loss. Or looking beyond what is familiar, and maybe wondering if it’s a cage or not.
Anyway, I’m getting better at getting out of my comfort zone. Over the years, I have been paying attention to the lessons I have been given. I no longer need someone to hold my hand at the dentist. If I need new glasses, I make an appointment. I am prepared to make mistakes and once I weigh all the options and think things through. I jump anyway.
21 year old me would have told me that was what I should have been doing all along.