An Absolutely Defining Sense of Self

I recently shared a meal with a room full of twentysomething girls, each one openly jockeying to reach their potential inner Lena Dunham. I didn’t know that’s who I was going to spend the evening with, they just happened to be the friends of a friend with whom I found myself seated. I was surrounded like a bunny in a field of chatty wolves.

I’ll admit that my friend group is starkly different than this. I prefer people to be a bit more diverse than a room full of white women who use Girls as their practical guidebook and Sex and the City as their aspirational guidebook of what they want in their New York experience. My friends are all shapes, sizes, and colors with varying aspirations and interests. They also each have distinct personalities, something I found lacking from this group of faux-Dunhams. However, among the sea of beige twentysomethings, three stood out.

One girl looked like the mistress from Love Actually, all bangs and hard lines and dinner plate-sized eyes. Another was the assistant to a gallerist somewhere in the city whose caterpillar eyebrows were darker than the rest of her hair, like two dark clouds holding up her wafer-thin body. The third was a sullen, mousy girl in a trench coat who appeared shrunken in on herself like a wilted leaf. In the few moments she spoke, her monotone voice reminded me of an intentionally boring clerk from a student film directed by someone trying too hard to be Wes Anderson. Each different in their own way, they stood out from monotony of cookie-cutter females who were each in various stages of the self-imposed quarter life crisis they insisted on discussing.

One of my friends once mentioned they were in a quarter life crisis and I looked them in the eyes and responded, “That’s not a real thing. You have no student loans, you had a job right out of college, you live on your own and have extra money to go on vacations…plural. You aren’t in a crisis, you’re just bored in the daily rhythm of life as opposed to the whizzy and snappy life college fabricated for you.” I was told I was wrong, which was fine with me. As a 33 year old man, I’ve seen my dreams shift and change, I’ve discovered areas of my life that could use some focused improvement and I’ve fumbled the ball a few times financially, socially or interpersonally. But the changing nature of life is exciting to me, not the knell of a crisis about my personhood. These girls at this dinner table waxed poetic about the ways they wished their lives looked and how they weren’t sure who they were anymore. They had lost their sense of self to the point of needing crisis management.

In the new episodes of Gilmore Girls, Rory finds herself in a similar conundrum as these twentysomething girls, albeit hers is an issue affecting people in my age bracket. That issue is the emergence of a generation of early thirtysomethings who have degrees and dreams and goals and résumés but find themselves in the inhospitable uterus that is today’s job market. Many of those thirtysomethings feel like their worth and work is being snuffed out of them and that’s if they’re lucky enough to even be working in a field that correlates with the calligraphy on their diplomas. Many are working what amounts to survival jobs in fields not even tangentially related to the aspirations they had when they walked across the stage.

We were raised with the promises of an economy flush with opportunities and writing jobs; an economic climate that ensured a degree landed you a job. It may be a small, bottom-of-the-totem-pole job, but you would get one. Today, no one is guaranteed anything and many find themselves like Rory, lost in what to do next and fearing the notion they may have to move home because being an independent adult isn’t working out like it did on FRIENDS.

Three years ago, a mere 3 months after I turned 30, I was thrust back into the job searching masses because my employer restructured my department, making my position superfluous. I can’t say I especially enjoyed what I was doing there, and within my clouded mental panic of WHAT THE HELL AM I GOING TO DO NOW, a tiny spark of relief flitted up that I was free. My job wasn’t my reason for living, but it was the reason I was able to live in the city I love, so that made it important to me. But as the bottom fell out, I began scavenging for any lead or freelance work I could find so my bills would get paid. In hindsight, the time I spent freelancing became a yearlong pivot in terms of my career. I took whatever jobs I could find and in that, I learned I could apply my degrees in fields I never though they’d fit into. After 14 months of handwringing, odd jobs here and there, and some splintered hopes for full-time employment, I landed in a new permanent position that is polar opposite from the work I was doing before. It’s been an adventure in rediscovery, one that was tear-inducing and stressful at times, but at no point during that time did I feel like I was losing my “self.” Quite the contrary, my “self” was all I had because everything around me seemed to be in floating in an anti-gravity state of upheaval.

These girls at dinner were playing the parts they thought they needed to play. I’d like to believe they are interesting individuals who have a lot to offer the world, but in their quest to over self-actualize, they lost their “selves.” The conversations consisted of mostly affected references to vaping, hating their jobs and drinking white wine. Perhaps they are more proactive in private than in public, but these girls just seemed to be griping about where they are, not really planning for where they want to be.

Over dinner, I learned who the gallerist didn’t care for, what East Village bar each girl had gotten wasted in and that they each are just a “t-shirt and jeans girl” at heart. I also learned that holding onto your “self” may be the most important thing one can do. When I was young, “self-preservation” was something Julia Roberts did in movies after she’d blundered her relationship. It implied putting up an emotional wall so nothing could get in or out. But I think the reality of self-preservation is the need to guard the things that make you you. It’s not really about guarding your feelings because you got too close to someone and now you’re panicked, but about retaining the essence of yourself regardless of whom you’re around, who you’re in a relationship with or what circumstance life has lobbed at you that week. The girls at this dinner table seemed oblivious to the necessity of self-care as pertains to their personhood. Sure, they drank their third and fourth glasses of wine in the name of “self-care,” but they babbled on and on about not knowing where they fit anymore. One girl even said, “I’m thinking about cutting off all my hair just so I can start over and be a new me.”

That’s when the girl who looked like the mistress from Love Actually turned to her and said, “I mean, you’d look cute with short hair for sure, but you don’t need to be a new you.” Practical advice. The girl in the trench echoed with “Yeah. Being new is a lot of work.” Jaded, yet still, practical advice. And as if it wasn’t enough like an after school special, the girl with the caterpillar eyebrows said, “I don’t know how to be anyone other than myself.”

Me either.

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