There are certain tokens you collect, small signs that you are wearing thin the remnants of your precious youth. You can’t remember the last time you were carded. Everyone on campus looks so young. Yale Dining has no more surprises for you — they could put tofu in their cheesecake and you still wouldn’t notice.
And then it arrives, suddenly, like the last day of summer before fifth grade: It’s your 22nd birthday.
You are now beyond tofu, beyond summer and beyond 21.
That day was Wednesday for me. Yes, thank you. I think I had a nice time. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember it, but my hair smelled promising.
Twenty-two is the beginning of the end. Twenty-two is the age at which most people graduate — the age of actual “adulthood.” Twenty-two is the first birthday beyond milestones, a palindrome which predicts the monotony of life to come: a life of uneventful birthdays you eventually won’t bother to celebrate. Twenty-two is hearing an empty bottle of André whisper “memento mori” in the silence before a tabletop toast.
At 22, you realize that the nature of birthdays has changed forever. Before 21, birthdays are goals, or stepping stones on the way to goals: having as many years as the fingers on one hand, reaching double digits, becoming a teenager, getting a driver’s license, being able to vote and buy tobacco and, finally, being able to buy alcohol. Five, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21: the iconic ages.
In the last moments of my birthday sobriety, I was complaining to a friend who is genuinely old: He’s 26 and in law school. He goes to bed at 10 p.m., and eats breakfast every morning. It’s horrifying.
“Youth is wasted on the young,” he told me wisely.
He’s right. I spent the first 22 years of my life hurtling from one goal to the next. Being 19, for example, meant nothing to me but being two years away from turning 21. On my 14th birthday, I was thinking about being 16, and on my 16th birthday, I was thinking wishfully about college. The day after each birthday in high school, I would start a countdown until my next one.
Now I am 22, and I have nowhere to hurtle except into my grave. I mean, I assume I have a while to get there, but still.
After 22, you have to start living differently. I don’t just mean eating less now that your metabolism is beginning to slow, although that would probably be a good idea. You have to start enjoying the intermission — the everyday, the ordinary. You can’t keep searching for hoops to jump through, or milestones to reach. After all, at 22, each day you’re still alive is probably a milestone.
It’s a cliché to say that, instead of birthdays, you should celebrate every day. It’s also probably a very easy and pleasant way to die young. But I think that everyone — not just those of us entering our fragile senescence — could benefit from something of a shift in perspective: not treating every day like a birthday, but maybe as its own milestone, its own destination.
Of course, this is easier when, like myself and many other seniors, you have very little left to look forward to. But even in the sweet, bygone days of my youth, I remember that anticipating an event generally squashed all the joy out of it when it was finally upon me — that’s what comes of getting your hopes up.
Unfortunately, the anticipation-disappointment problem is a cycle: we plan, wish and wait for something too long, which begets unrealistic expectations, which begets less-than-total satisfaction, which begets desperation, which brings us back to a new and equally foolhardy anticipation. “This birthday was so-so, but my next is going to be amazing!”
My best friend has this habit that I’ve managed, happily, to shirk. If he receives something extra-delicious and special, like gourmet chocolates or homemade cookies, he saves it for The Right Moment. He stows it away for days, months, even years — until, right when he’s “ready” to eat it, he finds it’s ruined. It’s stale. It’s melted. It’s no good.
Readers, you and I are those chocolates. Don’t let yourself go stale. Stop waiting around, like I did, and eat your candy — while you can still metabolize it without consequences.
Michelle Taylor is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .