Well, no. I’m about a month away from 38. I’m approaching what should be my midlife crisis. And, given that I’m still single and never even owned a home, I don’t know if I even get a midlife crisis. (Kind of a shame, since I’ve been looking forward to it.)
I’ve let (too) much of my social life revolve around virtual worlds. I’ve gotten to know players behind characters and made both friends and friendly acquaintances. I’ve also made enemies and lost friends, a rattling experience; until recently, I couldn’t recall losing a friend through a fight since elementary school.
And the thing is this. Increasingly, people I meet there are people who are one or two decades, not years, younger than I am. I’m from the generation that grew up with Star Wars; people born after Return of the Jedi are legal drinking age now. This is like someone from my mother’s generation meeting someone my age who never understood what all the fuss was about the Beatles.
From college on, I’ve often been a few years younger or older than those I hang out with. So, I wouldn’t expect this to be much of an issue with friends. Most times it’s not. As the gap spans a full generation, though, I realize with shock that those irritating adults who say patronizing things like, “You’ll understand when you’re older” aren’t meaning to be patronizing. I know because I want to say that to people now.
I see friends taking terrible offense at trivial slights, friends slighting one another unthinkingly, and a whole, whole lot of bad attitude which usually boils down to, “I can’t be in the wrong here no matter how many people might say otherwise, because I have the power of moral certainty on my side!”
Everybody who’s high school and college age, including me twenty years ago, is pretty sure that “experience comes with age” is less a truism than an excuse. At their age, we’re sure we’ve met people twice our age with half our talent. We may be right. I’ve met people who’ve done more by their mid-20s than some retirees.
But one very important thing really does only come with age: learning to pick your battles. It usually seems to us, at that age, that all our contests and conflicts are zero-sum, life-and-death struggles, where one party must be acknowledged to be Completely Right and the other Completely Wrong. Which means, of course, you’d better be completely right.
And as these “battles” add up, we’re tempted to think we’re accumulating vast stores of hard-won wisdom about human relationsips and the way the world operates. We’re learning, to be sure, but it’ll take some time and distance before we realize the most valuable lessons were about how small those fights were, and how pigheaded we were for not seeing that in the first damn place. Arguments will never be water under the bridge if we insist on blowing up the bridge behind us.
There are some people my age who still do that. It’s possible to live your whole life fueled by outrage, although it tends to be a pretty lonely life if you do. By and large, though, the world-weary, bitter cynics I know are all in their twenties or younger. And lately, it’s been harder and harder not to grab a few I know by their lapels and shake them and say:
Stop it. You are not old enough to have seen it all and learned it all and done it all. Your experiences, as big as they seem now, both good and bad, are small. There are pits you haven’t fallen into and dreams you haven’t dreamt. As many places as you have been now and as many people as you have met, there are magnitudes more places to see and people to meet out there, and no matter how long you may live, you’ll only get to know a fraction of the people and places you’d most enjoy. So as young as you are, you don’t have time to spend playing crotchety old man. Your problems may be trivial and they may be serious, and it behooves you to learn the difference. You’ve got places to go and people to meet and a lot of life to live, so get a move on, kid.
Of course, it wouldn’t help; it’d just cause a fight, and, y’know, I’d be Completely Wrong.
But, hopefully, they’ll understand when they’re older.