Make a wish

Dear Jen:
It’s just after midnight, so perhaps if I type fast, I can be the first to wish you happy birthday. And do make it a happy one, because I think this is going to be the best year of your life so far. Take it from me: turning thirty is cause for celebration.
Believe it or not, great things are beginning to happen for you. You may think that the emotional roller coaster you’ve been experiencing is a sign that your life is slowly-yet-surely falling apart, but you’re wrong. All of the disillusionment, soul-searching, and confusion is part of a process that’s hard to recognize while you’re going through it, but becomes clear when you look back later: you’re growing up.
Wait, don’t hit me! I know that statement sounds condescending, but that’s only because our society equates growing up with adolescence, and considers the process complete at 21, when we’re legally adults. Well, the physiological and legal transition may be over at that point, but the emotional change is a lot more gradual, and continues throughout the twenties for most of us. Letting go of the remnants of childhood and adolescence is a slow process, and one that our culture is largely unaware of.
But you can almost always tell when the transition is complete. You know you’ve reached that point when you decide to consciously reject those vestiges of your past because they’re interfering with your ability to go forward. You realize that you’ve been clinging to those things because they made you happy when you were younger — but they don’t make you happy anymore. You’re a different person now. And so you put away childish things and get on with your new life.
For me, this happened in 1985 and ’86, and it took the form of deciding to stop trying to be a college student forever. After being terribly lonely and unhappy in high school, I was fortunate to end up in 1978 at the University of South Carolina (which I loved from the moment I laid eyes on it) and find a social setting at the Presbyterian Student Center where, for the first time in my life, I felt at home. I not only made friends there, but also got involved in activities that I enjoyed (dance classes, puppet shows, study groups, Dungeons & Dragons games) and even served on several committees and eventually on the PSC council, getting elected treasurer twice and being selected my senior year as one of two live-in house managers. The stresses of term papers and exams were there, of course, but I was happier than I had ever been before because I fit in. I didn’t want it to end.
But of course it had to. By 1981, most of my friends had graduated. I made new ones, but the group that had made me feel so welcome was disintegrating. After I graduated and got married in 1983, I decided to continue into graduate school at USC in part because I wasn’t ready to leave. I continued to be active at the Presbyterian Student Center, but by 1984 virtually all of my original circle of friends was gone. And something else was happening that I wouldn’t have believed possible: I was growing tired of being a college student. The routine of classes and tests and papers was getting old. I was even becoming sick of the USC campus; I felt that I could walk from dorm to class to student center with my eyes closed, and it was just no fun anymore.
In 1978 the university had seemed like paradise to me; I had thought I could be happy there forever, but now it was time to leave. Marie and I moved off campus, I dropped out of graduate school, and I started looking for a real job. We gradually quit going to PSC activities. By the time Marie got pregnant in late ’85, I was ready to let go of the student lifestyle. In June of 1986, I was a father and a full-time technical writer, but the real transition to adulthood had taken place the year before, when I stopped trying to hang onto my past and began to embrace the future.
I see the same thing happening to you now. You’ve rejected your previous habit of trying to change your life with cross-country moves. You’re questioning your previously cherished romantic notions about being a writer. You’re facing the fact that you can’t eat like a teenager anymore. And you’ve realized that living with your parents and siblings is no longer comforting; it’s stifling. You’re ready to move on.
This process may be traumatic, but trust me, it’s worth it. Letting go of the leftovers of childhood is hard to do, but it’s also liberating. Forget the over-the-hill jokes you’re hearing — the thirties are a golden age of independence, personal growth, and empowerment. You’ve been testing your wings; now you’re ready to take flight and soar. Your best days are ahead of you, and you now have the freedom to fully explore your capabilities as you never have before. You’ll be amazed at what you learn about yourself in the years to come.
Happy birthday, Jen. And welcome to adulthood. You’re going to love it.
All the best,

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