The evening I saw Times Square from the top of Dad’s shoulders, I promised myself that this was the New York City I would always remember. Hands thrown in the air and fingers pointed to a purple skyline while I tried to soak in the world – forget about the imaginary monsters who kept me up last night.
It was truly the most overwhelming and freeing feeling all at once. Just me and the person I loved, somehow lost together in this place with so much going on. Colors I didn’t know the name of. Flashing billboards with words I couldn’t yet read and those strangers who smiled at me for reasons I didn’t understand. To the rest of Fifth Avenue, we might have looked lonely — out of place, even. A restaurant worker, still in his stained apron, and his 8-year-old walking around in circles as everyone else beelined for the next business meeting or tourist attraction. But even if we were, it didn’t matter. Even without a plot in mind, we were still the main characters. For just a moment, my immigrant father and I ruled this crazy heck of a world with our broken English, feeling fearlessly safe in our isolation.
But I lied.
As I got older, I forgot this vision of New York – this boundless imagination of a child who lost himself in the city streets, just for the sake of it. Maybe it’s because the last time I talked with Dad was over a year ago when he stopped coming home. Or maybe it’s because Mom is still undocumented, and that time she compared being an illegal alien to a bird that had its wings ripped off still haunts me. It makes me count down the years, months and days until I finally grow up and naturalize her.
For many of us, the prospect of growing up lies somewhere between opportunity and necessity, between serving ourselves and the people we hold close. It’s a confusing mix of new responsibilities and goals that’s coming faster than we realize, whether we want it to or not. These four years we spend in college are even more telling of this sudden jump, this resigning of ourselves to adulthood. We may not know it, but we’re all very different people from when we last left high school. The problem is, everyone seems to be changing much faster — maturing in incomprehensibly better ways. The world starts becoming a place we don’t remember, and even if people aren’t physically leaving us, we feel as though they are glowing up, taking themselves somewhere — leaving us behind to play catch-up in a growing up game that was supposed to be fun. And on top of everything, people expect us to start blueprinting the next 10 years, chartering the next big moment after Yale. The world does not wait for us.
We are told to surround ourselves with people who make us feel happy, but what people don’t tell you is that it’s difficult to find the right people. The people we choose to surround ourselves with are oftentimes the same people we feel are gradually slipping away and isolating us in a loneliness we were once comfortable with as children. But this isolation is not a sign of weakness. It is not a mental illness. In this race to grow up, we can be unforgiving to ourselves as we overthink what’s around us, robbing ourselves of time we need to ourselves because we’re always going after something, someone. We forget what it feels like to be children, how to smile without reason in situations we cannot control.
Children invent. They imagine. They daydream in fourth period Spanish. These qualities do not vanish the second we blow out that 18th birthday candle, and they don’t just exist in the form of nostalgia or old song marathons. What we fail to realize is that childhood has no expiration date, that there is a shade of grey between being a responsible person who caters to others and being children. It is therefore this childish ability to daydream and make something out of nothing that me and you — we — have to get back. The ability to retrace our steps and to accept that learning is not possible without first losing ourselves and then finding a new direction back. It is the ability to be content with simple pleasures in life, with walking in circles.
Maybe it’s the way we should teleport ourselves to Narnia today after that gruelling chemistry midterm, reading alone in our dorms. The way we should try staying in on a Friday night and plan a trip to Times Square with the monster who lives under our beds. It is the way we plan to climb onto his shoulders and look down at the world two hundred feet into the air that we finally tickle the sky, make sense of all the colors, lights and people there are to see.
A fear of solitude is a fear of ourselves and our inner monsters. We deserve moments to ourselves where we can recharge our social batteries and be lost in a fiction that we create. A fiction that is more than a way to escape the past and reminisce — but a way to forgive and work confidently toward new beginnings. This world was not designed to accommodate everyone equally from birth, and daydreaming breaches these gaps, allowing us to claim the world that is rightfully ours before we can be the world to others. We build a mental scaffolding that reflects on who and what truly matters to us, finding empathy in unforgiving places and loving the monsters who once gave us a hard time. Monsters in the form of our broken English. Our darker skin. Schizophrenia. In the way his green eyes give us butterflies we want to kill because we’re not supposed to like him like that. Those nightmares telling us that we’re not good enough, those liabilities we can’t live without because we’re nothing without them. Nothing to our history and to our future generations, waiting on us to do something.
Like children, we fight each other, break friendships over stupid reasons and embarass ourselves. But like children, our chronology is timeless. Two seconds after we finish crying, we should smile, hug each other and go on to forget everything but the good times. We learn, we imagine and most importantly, we remember to love ourselves. We remember to love ourselves whether we are looking down at Times Square from the shoulders of our Dad, our monster best friend — or whether we are looking up at the same place from the ground, walking alone after a breakup.
Sometimes the world isn’t the way we want to remember it. People change — they come and go. That biking trip with Grandma is now a jog down the memory lane, existing in a 6-by-8 black and white photo by our bed. That person we once laughed with over breakfast is now another stranger we’re nervous to say hi to in the streets. And that conversation we had with him by the fire, that time we vowed to make our own little delights one day and give them the absolute, absolute everything, is now a scar on our left arm from a bottle he threw in the middle of an argument. These things are not things you nor I can change. We can’t force patience out of an impatient world, expect Dad to come home even if we wait for him by the door every Chinese New Year. With his favorite oranges. No one owes us an apology, because everyone has their own struggles going on behind closed doors, struggles that cannot be compared against our own.
But that’s okay. We are the main characters of our own stories. Ultimately, it is up to our own jurisdiction and creativity as to how we decide to grow up, how to craft the next chapter of adulthood and relive the last chapter on childhood. It’s all that we can do — really — and so it’s exactly what I’m going to ask of everyone right now. To stay children forever and keep befriending the wild monsters in our dreams.
BRIAN ZHANG is a first year in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.