As a one friend celebrates his birthday today, and two other friends are getting married tomorrow, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we mark the different chapters of life. It seems as though childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood are full of clear transitions–school is littered with fresh starts as we make our way from grade to grade and then navigate each new semester of college; once we pass through the ritual of graduation, we embark on first jobs, homes of our own, committed romantic relationships. However, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer clear markers of transition from one chapter to the next. Years begin to blur together, and starting a “new year” on the first of January can feel a bit arbitrary and lack luster.
For my friend, Nick, who celebrates his 34th birthday today, life has more or less followed the prescribed path. Since graduating college eleven years ago, he got a dream job within his field of engineering and has been promoted steadily (and more quickly than any other employee at his company); he married his college sweetheart; he bought a house…and yet, he’s expressed on several occasions a sense of nostalgia for the cut path of childhood with its specific hurdles to clear. More and more, the question, “What’s next?” hangs in the air.
I did not exactly follow the prescribed path. I was good at jumping the concrete hurdles set up by institutions, not as good at navigating the meandering expanse of life after graduation. For me, the last 10 years since finishing college have at times seemed like a long haze of optimism and false starts, self-discovery and insecurity, joy and fear, excitement and instability. Up until very, very recently, I’d not managed to achieve most of the common markers of adulthood–full time job, long-term partner, etc. As a result, I often felt stuck in a strange limbo where I both felt terribly behind my peers while simultaneously wondering,”what’s next?” because I had no sense of the path to achieving these milestones, much less a larger purpose with my life.
Now that I’m more comfortably situated in a concrete way, I feel as though my long stint of frustrated adulthood may come in handy. If I’m able to derive some basic confidence from having weathered ups and downs without many anchors, then perhaps I’ll have the courage to create my own transitions, keep life from stagnating, asking, “What’s next?” with enthusiasm rather than dread. And when that courage wanes, perhaps I can draw strength from others grappling with this essentially human (albeit privileged) question for themselves.
After years of searching, Nick has created his next big milestone by taking a leap of faith this year. In another month, he will leave his prestigious, well paying dream job to teach engineering at a South Side Chicago high school, helping students gain confidence in math and science, encouraging them in their aspirations to be the first in their families to go to college. For him, and perhaps for all of us, the natural “next” step after ticking all the boxes in the usual checklist to establish ourselves is to turn our gaze outward and ask ourselves how we can contribute to what’s next for someone else.