My prom selfie, before selfies were even a thing.
Having spent three years of my life working with high school students, I believe I am qualified to make the following anthropological observation about teenagers:
They have a lot of feelings.
Okay, okay. Anyone who's ever seen an episode of Glee already knew that. But think about it. Can you blame them? After all, consider that when you’re 14, every experience is still brand new. Every heartbreak hits you like a truck straight to the gut. Every song lyric seems to be speaking directly to you, putting the perfect words to all the feelings you're sure only you and Alannis Morissette (er—One Direction?) have ever felt.
Looking back on our own high school years, most adults can probably understand why today’s teens have latched onto the refrain “it gets better.” Because when you experience the soul-crushing agony of loss or rejection for the very first time, you actually do wonder, will you EVER feel happiness again? Do people actually recover from broken hearts, or did you just miss your one and only chance at love?!?!?!?!?!?!?!1111
The answer, of course, as I hope most of us who have made it through to the other side can attest, is yes – people do recover from broken hearts. It does get better. And while there is certainly a calm that comes with getting older and wiser enough to know that – to really know and trust that a lost love was not your last, that other people’s opinions won’t make or break you, and that time truly does heal all wounds – in a sense, with that perspective also comes a loss.
Today, as I near my 26th birthday – a birthday in which I’ve officially passed all of the exciting milestones (legally voting, legally drinking and renting a car without a surcharge … which really wasn't that exciting) I have to ask myself: when was the last time I felt the exhilaration of being completely overwhelmed by raw, unbridled emotion?
Sure, I’m glad not to feel utterly crushed every time a boy I like doesn’t like me back. There's nothing I miss about feeling desperate to have amazing plans every single weekend. But, when did I put up so many protective emotional barriers that I stopped getting excited about a promising first date? When did a night on my couch with a solid Netflix line-up become so much more appealing than a night out on the town, and all the promise and possibilities such a night might bring?
I recently read about a study that said having new experiences makes people feel that time is passing more slowly. The study claimed to explain why our childhoods seemed to stretch on forever, but we feel the passing of our adult years more quickly with each birthday. As we get older, we experience the passage of time more rapidly, because fewer and fewer of our experiences are new – it takes less energy and brain space to process the same stimuli again and again. (For instance, the pattern of – 1. Receive mildly intriguing message on OKCupid. 2. Spend an hour making awkward small talk over drinks. 3. Never see the guy again. 4. Repeat. – has gotten pretty predictable.)
Armed with this knowledge, as I ring in my 26th year on this earth and have begun to feel like I'm hurtling toward old age faster than I can keep up with, maybe the best “Fountain of Youth” gift I can give myself this birthday is simply to try more new things. Instead of stocking up on all the age-defying creams Sephora is trying to convince me I need, maybe the best (and cheapest) age-defying tactic is just to pledge to branch out a bit – to take more emotional risks. Be more vulnerable. Let more people in. Drink some caffeine, put my big girl pants on, and get my butt somewhere fabulous next Friday night, instead of letting it remain planted firmly on the couch in fuzzy pajama bottoms.
At the end of the day, maybe we all have something to learn from those surly, mercurial teenagers, whose lives seem like constant rollercoaster rides between laughing and crying and screaming and laughing again. Maybe we could all stand to spend a few hours curled up in bed letting Celine Dion tell us, and only us, that our hearts will go on. (Seriously, CELINE GETS ME YOU GUYS.)
Because while opening ourselves up to new and unknown experiences may cause pain – maybe even crushing, gut-wrenching, incomprehensible pain that feels like it will never end -- it may also be the only way to open ourselves up to the biggest thrills, and the greatest possible joys.
And no matter how old we are, isn't that what life is all about?