This past Monday while researching for one of my jobs, I came across the twitter account of a 17-year-old. If you google said 17-year-old, you are directed to her Wikipedia page that describes her as a writer/comedian who began writing professionally at age 10 when Hello Giggles commissioned her to write a piece (though the reason why is somewhat harder to find) for their younger audiences. She has since snagged a regular comedy gig at Upright Citizens Brigade, as well as published her first memoir at, you guessed it, the tender age of 17.
Quite frankly, this strikes me as ludicrous. Maybe that’s because imagining my own 17-year-old self with a global platform produces a sort of vague dread; it could even be a sort of latent jealousy that someone 7 years younger has a more established career. But I am more inclined to think it’s because of this peculiar age (phase?) we live in, in which those who achieve fame in youth are enviable, and those who achieve some form of success eventually are the suckers.
I think a sort of obvious reason why youth itself is praised is because it is when we are most beautiful. Our skin, with its sundry so-called problems (combination! dry cheeks! the early signs of cellulite!), is glowing and fine. We look better on magazine covers than older people, we fit better into clothes because they are designed for people the size of children. Youth is powerful. I think of this almost every time I bounce up a flight of stairs, because I do just that – bounce. I spring up the stairs like a gazelle, with hip flexers so free I can hardly imagining ever having difficulty with such a task. If my back hurts towards the end of the day, I simply go to bed and wake up better. There is inherent power in the regeneration our bodies are doing all the time in our younger years, in the boundless energy we have to do pretty much anything we feel like doing (going skiing with absolutely no prior practice! heading to the ballet and then the midnight premiere of Star Wars after an 8 hour work day because the price is right! eating cheeseburgers three times a week!) And yet, not completely powerful – I remember reading Looking for Alaska clandestinely in the reading nook at Borders (#RIP) on an afternoon in which I had my license, but not my mother’s permission to read said book. There is a passage towards the end of the book in which the protagonist addresses the adult world in a sort of meta way, saying that youth really does equal impermeability, and that if you are young once, in a way you are young forever. At age 16, I thought that was kind of dumb. I liked being a teenager, but I didn’t want to be one forever, and I knew that despite everything I felt I was not in fact invincible. I knew I had strong legs, but I knew that didn’t mean they could quite take me everywhere.
There’s a sort of glorious drama to being young, obviously. I think of the middle daughter in Dan in Real Life, how the reason the joke works when she yells, “You are a murderer of love!” at her father after he sends her boyfriend away is because she means it with absolutely no irony. Every feeling is not just worth experiencing, it’s worth sharing. When an adult tells you, “The world doesn’t revolve around you, y’know,” when you’re 17, there is a tiny voice in your brain that says, “Wait, really?” We are the ultimate protagonists in youth, and we think everyone should be rooting for us. At the same time, we are painfully self-aware in our youth and simultaneously unaware of the actual power we have to wield. So many older people tell the young to revel in the power of their youth, but we are so busy trying to nail it down it often goes to waste. Which is why it’s extra funny when young people become famous or achieve some sort of lauded success – they don’t quite know anything yet. Young people genuinely don’t know how they got there because typically they didn’t get themselves there – their parents did or an agent who saw them on the street did (because, as we know, what happens when we get older is we become obsessed with helping younger people get there faster). There’s a reason the words “young and dumb” are often thrown together; they really do go hand in hand.
Which brings me to the thing I’ve really been thinking about lately. It seems the price we have to pay for real wisdom and know-how is our youth. We have to siphon off our energy and beauty and glowing skin, Little Mermaid style, in exchange to get at all the stuff we spend our youths pining after. This all came to a head while listening to a podcast Amy actually mentioned earlier this week, an interview with George Saunders on Dear Sugars. In the podcast, George and the hosts discuss their own youths spent going into credit card debt and writing on the weekends and generally being in their respective artistic fields for the long game with not much noteworthy events in the interim. George brought up how it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but our generation sort of as a group thinks that we should be paid for our art. He talks about how, obviously, given the available employment in most artistic fields, that simply won’t be possible, and that the pursuit of art as a passion – not a paycheck – is bound to be a more fulfilling use of time. I think we should and we shouldn’t. I think work should be rewarded with compensation, that hours spent crafting or making something, be it a turn of phrase or a well made shoe, should be rewarded in kind. But math and logic (and also, coincidentally, George) tell us that not everyone will be paid for their well-made shoes. Which means we must be prepared for otherwise, lest we spend our whole lives in pursuit of something that is neither real nor necessarily deserved. And, on the complete other end of the spectrum, when someone is successful when they’re young, they have much less places to go after they get paid because they spend the rest of their career being compared to the prodigy they once were. It’s rigged. You either spend your youth acquiring the skills and responsibilities and pathos necessary to be a really good artist, or you get snatched up for your raw talent by someone who knows what it looks like and spend your adult life attempting to have a real career. Again, rigged.
It’s a two-edged sword in relationships, too. The last relationship I was in that ended, I had a conversation with a friend in which we discussed the particular longing to spend your youth with someone, to share it. I was mourning the loss of a person, but I was also mourning the missed chance at sharing my youth with someone in real time. Youth is when you are exuberant and ultimately hopeful, and while I know it’s possible to grow younger as we grow older, there is something about the exterior matching the interior in real time and being intimately witnessed by someone else. How do you maintain that exuberance and hope, sustain it long enough for the right person to benefit from it, receive it? Youth has this really lovely curiosity to it, a gorgeous acceptance of things as they are with a bemused interest in what’s to come. But youth also feels like one long heartbreak, in which you know the aftermath will more than likely exceed expectations, but can’t help being brokenhearted in the meantime. There’s a reason that devastating song by Daughter is called Youth. This hope and blind emotion glowing skin is what we hope to give to someone – “my youth is yours.” How can I when you won’t take it from me? That was probably more fun for me than you. Blame it on my youth.
But is it really the best gift you can give somebody? Or is it the promise of your better years? Yes, youth is hopeful. Yes, our legs are all like Bambi whether we realize it or not. But if life is constantly stretching forward, there’s gotta be more good stuff in the second half. There are 500 more songs about “living while you’re young,” but what about after? Are we just supposed to, like, stop? We get better because we learn more stuff, grow more relaxed in our bodies. If we’re funny, we get even funnier because life requires it. If we’re smart, we get smarter because we require more frequent exit strategies. If we’re beautiful (and I’m telling you, yes you, you actually are if only for the quality of your limbs and that glow radiating from your fresh fresh face), we get, well uglier, but better two out of three than nothing. The old crones are having far more fun! “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” What a boring question! Love me when I’m old and really good at something, baby!
You are not very good yet at anything when you’re young. You have raw talent, but not enough experiences to inform it, and any success experienced can’t be much more than dumb luck. And, of course, the only way to gain experience is to keep doing things and learning as you go, but the invincibility of our youth causes us to question those who came before us as backward or removed, instead of considering that they actually might know better. Because, youth is power, but age is wisdom. I think of 13 Going on 30, where she wishes to be “thirty and flirty and thriving.” The first time I watched it, at age 12, I thought 30 seemed awfully old. I feel differently now, but the idea of being successful by 30 is not one many people I know entertain. It’s either success at 24 or something is wrong. I know my generation is not the first to indulge in this folly, and I don’t think there’s much wrong with ambition, but I do think there’s quite a lot wrong with thinking we deserve something. That being talented equates to profiting from it. But then, how does Hamlet benefit from an empty room?
When I try to picture myself in 10 years, my picture is much fuzzier than the one I have for 2 years. I’m shortsighted about my own abilities, even though logic and experience show that everything I am good at now I will be much better at 50 years from now, but my hip flexers will have slowed me down and the skin on my back will have turned papery (sad!). Oh, to simply be bemused by the future. To welcome what’s to come with a slightly aching back.
And still, I end up coming back to the same question as always – can’t I have both?