This fall, I entered the vaunted thirties. In case you didn’t know, they’re the new everything. They’re when your life begins. By this time, you will have achieved some sense of normalcy and happiness. You’ll be a fully-fledged, largely secure adult. And even though you’ll be drowning in student loan debt and the rent will always be too damned high, at least you’ll be on your own. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s where it starts to fall apart for me too.
The trouble with being on your own is that you’re also on your own. As in, look out for number one because no one else will. As in, watch your back to avoid an affront. You get it. That is what we’re working towards? So that when we get “there,” to that imaginary definition of success, all we can do is wonder what it was all about? So that we can climb ladders to nowhere, just as alone and afraid as we were at the bottom? Apparently so, since many of us run — not walk — toward it for the duration of our teenage and young adult years. Just like we were taught to do, just like our parents were taught to do, just like their parents and their parents and their parents were taught to do.
I’m no different. I’ve been consciously looking forward to my thirties since the day I turned 21. In those nine years, I mostly thought about life as a series of finish lines to cross. I needed to graduate from college and get a master’s degree (check, check). I needed to explore careers and find a purpose (check, yes!). I needed to settle down with someone I couldn’t imagine life without (check, ❤ Hubs). I needed to be an equal partner in putting down long-term roots (check-ish). I needed to do a lot of things, and while I accomplished many of them, I only recently remembered that life isn’t a checklist. Those are not the standards by which I want to measure my life. At least not any longer.
A journeyer, that’s what I am. I realize this makes me counter-cultural — sometimes even unpopular. I’m okay with that, because I’ve worked really hard to own that identity, and I don’t need validation from others to affirm its worth any longer. I no longer need to engage in the chase, to get caught up in the dizzying work of pursuing what society wants for (read: expects of) me. Because, to be perfectly clear, these demands are more about keeping order than ensuring anyone’s happiness, health, or genuine ties to community — all things I care about deeply. There are simply too many opportunities for creating a meaningful life outside that prescriptive lifestyle. The “highly suggested” route to “the good life” no longer computes for me. Seeing that, I’ve decided to forge my own. Something tells me life is about to get a helluva lot more full.
I should note that privilege is inherent in my position. I am a middle-class white American female. While much has been expected of me, much has also been given. And while I’ve certainly worked really, really hard in this life, before that effort could be expended, my status afforded me opportunities I’d never have to dream of earning. This includes opportunities to reject definitions of success set by the very culture into which I was born and by which I was afforded extra opportunity in the first place.
I also recognize that part of my responsibility in having that privilege is to speak truth on it. I don’t just mean how it affects my life. I mean the ways in which it is organized, systematized, and allowed to continue so that those who control it are also its primary beneficiaries. To clarify, that’s white America, and white America, we can do better, regardless of political party or any other identity marker. We can. We just have to invest our privilege in more than ourselves.
Just so we’re all clear, this is meant to be a positive force. It is not a hall pass to advance division. Division, hatred, and dismantling of systems for the sake of these things alone solves nothing. I hear an awful lot of people on both sides of the aisle encouraging “resistance” as a response to the times. Fewer verbalize what they are resisting, the ways in which they are resisting, and why. That’s scary. I’m also not convinced this is what our ultimate goal should be. Resistance as a tool tends to rest on the foundation of defining ourselves by what we aren’t, and that’s a half-definition at best. What about what we are?
America, we need the other half of that equation in order to move forward, as individuals and as a nation. I’d like to see us all invest more time and energy into a much-needed introspective moment before we do irreparable harm to ourselves. This moment isn’t a good look for us, no matter how we identify. And the world is watching. Closely.
Granted, we all start somewhere and part of doing this work is respecting the journey at every stage it exists, allowing time and space for growth and change. What we can’t wait for is for someone else to start the healing work on our behalf. That someone else is YOU. And you’re needed right now.
This is not to say the work will be quick and easy. No, please don’t mistake urgency for these things. In actual fact, the work is complex and will take a long time. But it’s worthwhile. It’s about protecting our democracy for all citizens, and while this means more than those with white skin or male gender markers, it also must include them. No one is exempt, but no one is left out, either. Quite simply, we must decide if we are 50 states’-worth of people united — or not. I pray it’s the former, and I hope that you can identify and enact at least one way to support it in your corner of the world.
On one level, nothing would make me happier than to see our constitutional system support that effort, to create long-term, positive change for our nation. While it isn’t a perfect system, it is a living system, which means it does its best work when we let it work. It does, however, require periodic maintenance to serve us all, and to serve us well. It can and must grow with us, but before we criticize it too heavily, or assign full blame to documents dating back hundreds of years, I wonder if we might take a moment to think on how many of us actually use our constitutional rights to their full advantage. I’m betting many don’t, and that’s something we can start to change any day we like. Today is as good as any.
On another level, I fear most people will hear that message and think only of elections. This work mustn’t be confined; we can and should invest our energies here, but regardless of whether or not it’s election season, we all have a responsibility to live our values forward every single day. It can’t begin and end every other November. Our votes are not our only opportunities to make our voices heard or our values seen.
The work our country needs must be done daily and with intention. Indeed, it already is, but perhaps we are not aware of the moments when this happens, or how much power individual moments have. Every choice we make is a reflection of our values, of our beliefs, of our greatest hopes and our deepest fears. I ask you, as I often ask myself, what do your choices say about you? Hopefully what you want them to say — and hopefully something that doesn’t imperil your fellow humans.
Here’s the good news. Even if you weren’t happy with your answer to that question, it is never too late to readjust, reaffirm, realign. I have learned that lesson many times in my short life. It’s been one of my favorites — and one I try to keep front-and-center. I use it to examine my past, my present, and my future. Most of the time, it’s helpful. Especially at what feels like large crossroads such as this.
As I look ahead, I hope my thirties are marked by more actions I feel represent my honest, true self. Moments of grace and love, of solidarity and inclusion, of hope and hard work. Sure, I will mess up, I will fall down, and I will make mistakes. But I’ve got to try. More than anything else, arriving at my thirties has given me the
confidence — no, the strength of character — to finally do it, which is a good thing, because I was losing patience with myself for awhile there.
Admittedly, this would not be possible without the support of my world-class family and friends, whose love is so freely and routinely shared. That love makes all things possible. Not just in my life, but in general, for the world. Love transcends movements, it outlasts lifetimes, it alone stands infinite and incorruptible. It is the standard by which I measure everything. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
Already, love has formed me into a better self. I have no doubts that it will mould me further still. But before that happens, I’ve got to acknowledge its gifts. They are innumerable, but my best guess is that I’ve received four principal gifts thus far, for which I feel at least halfway undeserving. But maybe that’s the point of it all — maybe we’re all called to grow into the gifts we receive. And, if that’s the case, I pray that we may all come to receive them in whatever form and time they arrive. As for me:
(1) Love lets me know who I am. After 30 years in this body, it’d be a damned shame if I didn’t know myself by now. I’ve still got a laundry list of things to learn, I’m sure, but at this point I’m confident I understand who I am and what I’m here to do. Praise be. The struggle has not been in vain.
(2) Love lets me know what I stand for. At this point, the things I care about most seem to have arranged themselves in a compact but meaningful list. It looks a lot different than most of what I see around me, but you know what? I’m totally fine with that — in fact, I relish it. Do you know how liberating it is to finally step into yourself, stand up for yourself, and have the strength to stand up with others? I pray that you do or otherwise that you will soon.
(3) Love lets me fight for these things, no holds barred. Now that I know who I am and what I stand for, I am no longer capable of exclusively observing the world. I must contribute something of substance. It’s not just a calling, it’s a commandment, one which I finally feel strong enough to answer. Even though I am a nobody. Even though I’m imperfect. Even though I will most certainly fail — repeatedly. There are no more excuses. It’s time.
(4) Love lets me pursue health and happiness along the way. Taking care of the world is a worthwhile enterprise, but if past seasons of my life have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t fight for the big stuff until you take proper care of yourself. I’ve been doing a better job of this, but I have to admit that, until recently, I viewed it mostly as a chore. Now I see it’s a joy. It is a gift to be cherished, and with that knowledge, I will cherish it.
If this is my starting point for the next thirty years (God willing), then life is shaping up pretty well. I’ll continue down the road and see where it takes me. But for now, please permit me to share a brief birthday wish — or perhaps more accurately, a prayer. May we all have what we need to fight the good fight. May we encounter each other more often, learn from each other more often, and support each other more often. May the journeys we start alone find ways to converge, so that together we can proclaim the power of love, a love that knows neither beginning nor end, a love that is boundless, timeless, and ever-present. Amen.
North by North Carolinian
Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle