Lists about young adulthood are all over the Internet. They tell me how to be a twenty something: how I should approach my job, what kinds of friends I should have, where and how to spend my free time, which clothes are cool, which aren’t, and what types of alcohol I should be drinking. All are virtual signs that line the same road: what l “must do,” or “have to do” in order to be a bonafide twenty something—usually through the eyes of an upper-middle class, white, college-educated individual.
These lists, though different in their specifics, tend towards the following: travel far and wide, hook up, break up, drink wine, drink lots of wine, drink so much wine you forget your name, go out, take road trips, and generally speaking, be a free spirit. Go against the grain of the “real world,” especially the “real world” post-college. These lists are characterized by independence, but entail a somewhat darker side. They are motivated by a fear of vulnerability—a conditioned disdain of defining “living” as anything other than letting the wind blow in our hair, in fear that society will reject it. Living life to the fullest has become synonymous with a specific set of criteria; the girl pursuing a career in publishing is not “really” living, but the girl who took a year off to travel Europe, is. The former seems to normal—the latter, perfectly abnormal.
In many ways, social media has effectively defined the “good life” for anyone under the age of 30 who believes that they embody a sense of adventure and freedom. “Independence” has come to mean pursuing what we have been told makes us come alive and will make us happy—not the freedom to chase what actually does and will. Independence, as defined by Buzzfeed lists, effectively translates going against “the grain” that is defined by jobs, committed relationships, and a little less wine. Being free no longer means being able to choose what will move us, but rather what it is that will make us less vulnerable, and appear to be without care. It seems that the “right way” to do things has become the “carefree” way to do them.
The danger of any of these lists that tell us what freedom means is not the content, but the prescription of the content. Not that it tells us what the list is, but that there can be a list to begin with—that there is something out there that can choose how we live for us. It tells us that independence does not constitute action, but content. While working so hard to be unique, free spirited, and utterly liberated, we have ended up with a conception of the good life so universally branded, sold, and desired, we can longer even be said to have chosen it ourselves, if we do follow this path. The scary part does not lie in what these lists are telling us to do. It is that by habitually reading them, by scrolling through the same newsfeed with the same friends, reading the same targeted ads, and being exposed to ideas that only agree with what we think are our own, we begin to believe that what is being presented to us, is all that is offered. Our conception of the world narrows when we believe that what we read is the sole way to live. It becomes small when our minds become small, and letting them become small is frighteningly easy.
Narrowing the conception of “living life” to a list of things that we must do not only does a disservice to those attempting to live an authentic life, but to the idea of what it means to truly live. If the guiding principle that we are looking for in our twenties is freedom, then we should be able to be free to choose, and not bound to a popular notion of what freedom “is” and how we ought to act upon this notion. “Free spirit,” by nature, cannot be bound to a particular picture; in an attempt to be free, we have constrained ourselves. While vehemently breaking away, we have become chained. We are bound to a fear that our interests and tendencies may be too normal, too boring, to be considered living. Yet, the moment that freedom is defined for us, whatever concept that is being described loses the privilege of being called freedom.
It is okay to read these lists. It is also okay to agree with some of them. But to allow ourselves to feel that anything other than their content is not valid nor appropriate is to deny our very own freedom. To live in fear of judgment and vulnerability that comes with exposing what lights the spark of our innermost selves is not to live, but to slowly become the people we never wanted to be. But when we act on our own volition, vulnerability becomes power. There can be no shame in being vulnerable. There seems to be this idea that callousness as an approach to life somehow makes us more independent people, better equipped for the harsh world than our counterparts who decide to give of themselves. There is nothing that is “given up” by investing yourself in people and in deeds, but there is everything to be gained. Life is not about staving off vulnerability as long as humanly possible, but rather about allowing it to find you.
Perhaps by writing this, and telling you why you should stop attempting to define your life in the constraints of lists, I am contributing to the exact paradigm I argue against—but that’s up to you to decide. Be wary of lists or not, once we become okay with the fact that sometimes we want the wind in our hair to come from a fan in our first apartment, and not from the coast of Greece—we will truly be free.
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