Tonight I was sitting at a dinner table, and someone there made a comment that in your early twenties, you’re at your prime of life. You’re the strongest, the healthiest that you’ll ever be. You think that you know everything. You feel that you can take on the world. It’s the moment of invincibility.
I didn’t have much reaction to that. I know that that is the typical experience for the average American, and that those moments after college can feel exhilarating and invigorating.
Then a third person at the table commented while looking at me, Not everyone’s experience is quite like that. Some people have suffered a lot or have known limitation by that age.
And it got me thinking. It’s true. I had been through a lot by the time I had graduated from college. I had a very serious long-term illness that impacted my career opportunities. I had a tense relationship with family that made home life very uncomfortable. I was dealing with depression that had not yet been brought under control and chronic fatigue that was nearly paralyzing. In a sense, I was greatly misunderstood by a large number of people.
However, I’m not sure that my experience was all that different from everyone else’s. I graduated in a major recession where my classmates were lucky if they got jobs. A lot of people ended up moving back home and working for hourly wages or getting part-time gigs as census workers or election officials. Several people even landed part-time nanny gigs to make ends meet. All of us wondered aloud to each other if we had been fed this big lie. After nearly 18 years of education, we still might not be able to secure a job? We might not have enough experience for an “entry-level” job?
The moment of truth comes at different times for each person. For some people it came during college. For some people it came after college. For some people it came much later.
I have enough distance from the experience to know that it’s not the illness that made my experience special. It’s not a disability that has rendered the landscape of my life to be different. I had a classmate who worked in a warehouse on the early morning shift so that he could support his family & then went to school the rest of the day and did research in the afternoon and evening so he could pursue his dream of going to medical school. Another classmate of mine struggled with maintaining a relationship with his parents who were petty drug dealers and lived in the area. A third classmate had to face the reality that in a two month period, she went from having a father who lived in one state and a mother who lived in another to attending her father’s funeral, knowing that her mother had remarried, now had stepchildren, and didn’t have space for her in her life any more; in other words, what little family she had was non-existent.
The point is that life is messy. Things don’t turn out the way that we think they ought to. It’s not a competition to see who has endured the biggest suffering. It’s not about whose resilience is stood the bigger test of time. And no one is immune to hardship.
I’ve realized that I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself that I didn’t have the typical post-college experience. Not because I think mine is better than everyone else’s. Or because I’ve convinced myself that I deserved what I got. But because that’s not really what life is about.
Your own experience is valid for what is it — your experience. Life is not about striving for perfection or the ideal life experience. It’s about making the most of what you are given. About becoming the person that you’re meant to be. Whatever that looks like.