The Agedness of Youth

Here's a scary thought: everything that I am today I am thanks to decisions that I made in my youth. Okay, so that's the way history, even personal history, works: the past gives rise to the present. But think about it. Everything that I am now, as an adult, I am thanks to decisions that I made when I was young and inexperienced and--horrible to think!--didn't know any better, having more or less no clue what I was doing.

By the time I was 20, I had decided on my career and started applying to graduate schools. By the time I was 21, I had chosen the topic on which I would spend the next several decades (and counting) of my research. By the time I was 26, I had met my second husband (long story there). By the time I was 29, I had finished my dissertation and started my first--to date, only--job. Everything, in other words, that defines me professionally and, except for the birth of my son, personally was in place before I was 30 and he was born when I was 31.*

Surely there's something backward here. Aren't adults the ones who make all the big decisions? And yet, the last big decision my husband and I made was to buy our condo, and that was way back when I was 36. Thereafter, it's all been just maintenance, our adult selves taking care of the decisions that we made when we were young. No wonder I feel like such an adolescent sometimes: that's who I am. Okay, maybe a twentysomething, since that's when I made all those decisions about who I wanted to become. But it's probably even worse: I'm a wannabe twentysomething. I am now the person that I wanted to be when I was twenty--but is that the same person I want to be at 44?

Another paradox, most certainly related: I actually felt more grown-up when I was in my twenties than I do now. Oh, to be young again! How grown-up my fellow graduate students and I considered ourselves as we tackled the hurdles of our education! How alive and daring and free we felt walking the streets of New York to and from classes and the library! How vital and important our work was, certainly something worth sacrificing so many hours of our youth for! And the conversations that we had about history and the philosophy of history and why it was that we were doing what we were--riveting! I very rarely have those sorts of conversations now, except with my students.

Were we foolish or profound? Childish or mature? We certainly felt like the decisions we were making--about where to go to graduate school, about what field to pursue our studies in, about what to write our dissertations on--were of earth-shattering significance. But come to think of it, perhaps they were, if only for ourselves. Think if I had made different decisions then, how different my life would be now. We were right: what we were doing was huge, bigger even than we realized at the time. And yet, at the time, every decision seemed to have such potentially limited effect, certainly not something that would affect, yes, our whole lives.

I stagger to think what it would have been like to have caught even a glimpse of the responsibility we were taking on. Or maybe we did, but we just didn't understand what it meant at the time. I know I went to graduate school with a clear vision of what I wanted to be "when I grew up." But here I am now, grown up, living out the fantasies of my youth. Surely twentysomethings should not be allowed to make such life-altering decisions for others, even if those others are only their future selves. Certainly, I would hardly now take the advice of someone in her twenties about what career I should choose--and yet, in actual fact, that's what I did.

Of course, there were adults (my teachers) who helped advise me, but the decision was still very much mine. And so now, here I am, beholden to my past self, thankful and yet amazed that I had the courage that I did to take such a leap, but wondering now whether, with the experience that I now have, I would have made the decisions that I did about who to become. Perhaps, or perhaps not. One thing I most certainly did not appreciate was how great an economic sacrifice I was making by not, for example, following my parents into medicine. It just didn't seem so important in my twenties when the world was my oyster and there was so much to explore. But it isn't really that I regret my decision or want to take it back. What I miss is the courage to make such decisions now.

*I'm not counting fencing here as one of the big ones, but even that is rapidly becoming something I chose for myself in my youth, age 38.


  1. I just discovered your blog, through Servetus. This was an amazing first post to read. It put words to some things I've been thinking about, without quite knowing how to put them myself.

    I hope you won't mind if I read through your archives. You're welcome to explore mine.

  2. Please do explore! I look forward to perusing your archives, too. I see that we have a great deal in common already.

  3. gosh darn it, Rangel!

    this hit it on the head--all those
    choices made by the 25 year old me, who I can't even recognize as me often...

    And how to recapture that passion of unlimited choices, ie a longer future.

    Stuff to talk on next month


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