There’s something about twenty-six years that makes a person stop and ponder. Perhaps it’s the realization that you are no longer “early twenties,” that you are on the high-side of “mid-twenties” with “late-twenties” coming up next year…and not long after that, the “thirties”. You still feel like a teenager sometimes, except that 18-year-olds look so young. At the same time, you feel that you aren’t quite as adult as your 30-something friends and family who seem to have found their groove in life (even if they would tell you they haven’t).
You may, by this point, be wise enough to know what you don’t know (or at least, you know that there are, in fact, a few things you don’t know), but you do know that you can get along without having it all figured out. In fact, that’s mostly what adulthood seems to be–you may have a plan, but sometimes the plan is to improvise as you go along. This, perhaps, used to seem more like an adventure than it does currently. Some days you want to throw in the towel and take a road trip across the U.S. or go traveling in Europe; other days–most days–the status quo of bills paid, a place to sleep every night, food in the fridge, and the cat purring on the couch is more than good enough. In fact, some days you find yourself wishing for a little more routine, and you wonder what happened to your more flexible stay-up-til-two a.m.-and-not-feel-it college self.
You realize that you’ve really done quite a lot with yourself in only twenty-six years. You’ve traveled and been educated and met wonderful people and done things you never thought you’d do–until you surprised yourself and did them. You’ve plumbed the depths of your deepest beliefs, and surfaced again to find that they are not what they used to be–they run deeper than ever, deeper than you can ever know–but their foundation is the same and remains unshaken. You’ve discovered that joy and sadness alike can ache, and that they are sometimes bound together, inextricably; and that the hardest things to do, are often the most worth doing. You’ve realized that you are not the same person you were, even a day or a week or a year ago, and neither is most anyone else. You’ve learned a little more about patience and humility and compassion and grief and giving (and receiving) the benefit of the doubt. You’ve had your eyes opened, your heart pierced, and you’ve asked questions you didn’t know existed until you asked them. You know that you still have a long ways to go.
At the same time, there are things you’d thought you’d have done by now, which haven’t come your way yet. Late at night, or on the edge of sleep, or while you’re doing dishes, you weigh these unclaimed things in your heart. Sometimes you can cheerfully place them back on the “hopes and dreams” shelf (which has perhaps shrunk a little and become more organized in the last few years), but sometimes the weight of them brings you crashing to your knees. You know that you’re “only twenty-six, you’ve got time,” but at the same time, you know that some people haven’t made it this far. And sometimes, quietly, you wonder how much time you have left, too. You wonder how much of that shelf you can pack in over the remaining unknown years.
But then, as you blow out the twenty-six candles on your cake, you remember that the best thing to do with life is to live. Not to dread the things undone, or rush ahead to the next milestone, so that you can’t remember what happened while you were getting there. There are some prized items that may stay on the shelf a long time, but don’t discard them. Do what you can, and be patient with what you cannot. And try to remember that the clock on the wall at work and the laundry and the dirty dishes and the cat litter are the fulfillment, or the road to, one of those dreams. Life wouldn’t go on very well without them.
As you slice into your birthday cake, and taste the twenty-six years it represents, reflect and be encouraged. Plan, and be ready to make it up as you go along. Don’t ignore the stings of unfulfilled heart’s desires, but don’t let them overwhelm you. Know that the hard will come, with a vengeance–but so will happiness and joy, with equal and more strength. You have changed and you will change–if you pray hard and work hard, this will be for the better–and this is one of the best and most merciful aspects of life.
Happy twenty-sixth birthday.