On Turning 22

Today, I turn 22.

Before Taylor Swift, there really wasn’t much to celebrate about your 22nd birthday. Still recovering from the debauchery that was your 21st, you find yourself tempted to just call it quits on this whole birthday business. This particular milestone seems to just herald in the insecurities of our twenties. It’s time to a have a life plan. It’s time to be a real person. (Of course, being in a position to really feel this anxiety is actually a unique privilege of its own. Many twenty-two-year-olds have been members of the “real world” for quite some time, and the rest of us— myself most definitely included—would be well-served to remember that. This is, of course, just one 22-year-old’s perspective on growing up.)

When we were growing up, birthdays were eagerly anticipated because they meant change. Another year older, another grade higher. A year closer to some idealized fantasy birthday with all its imagined privileges: closer to 13, closer to 16, to eighteen, to 20, to 21. We got a taste of the anticlimactic birthday when we turned 19, caught in between two real milestones, waiting it out for 365 days.

Now, it seems like birthdays are more about how much time has passed rather than how much time is ahead. But 22 is a bit young for a full-blown existential crisis of mortality. Twenty-two is more about a general sense of unease. Twenty-two is also, to put it frankly, kind of boring. Not a lot changes when you turn 22.

With these cheery thoughts rattling in my head, I watched the days of the calendar lurch by and my own birthday draw closer. And now, here it is. I’m turning 22, and to be honest, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to write home about. My life is more uncertain than it has ever been. I’m a senior in college who has no idea what she’ll be doing next year, who has yet to be accepted for any postgraduate opportunities, who isn’t sure what the next step ought to be. And while I know it’s an artificial distinction, 22 feels substantively different from 21. Twenty-two feels like the on-ramp to the highway of true adulthood, and I’m still riding a tricycle in my backyard.

But this isn’t the way I want to feel on my birthday.

It’s all too tempting to throw myself a pity party instead of a birthday bash. As markers of time and age, birthdays are often caught in the uncomfortable space between the future and the past. Today, it’s easy to focus on the uncertainty of my future or to fixate on my nostalgia for the past. It’s even easier to get caught up in the narcissistic cult of the birthday: This is my day, and I deserve it.

But instead, I want to spend today in the present. I don’t want to think about how far I’ve come or how far I have to go. I want to think about what this moment feels like. As twenty-somethings, we are often pushed to be constantly reaching beyond our present toward some idealized future. Sometimes, it seems like our childhood eagerness for the fantasy birthday—our belief that the next year will bring something bigger and better—metastasizes in our twenties. We become so fixated on living in the future that we forget to breathe in the present.

So today, on my 22nd birthday, I’m going to breathe. And tomorrow, on the day after my 22nd birthday, I’m going to breathe again. I am going to experience life before I analyze it and I am going to untether my self-worth from the certainty of my five-year plan. This will be the gift I give to myself to mark yet another year successfully completed: the chance to actually experience the present (no pun intended!) and the room to breathe.

Today, at the stroke of midnight, my friends surprised me in my college library with a birthday cake. They took time out of their lives—which are filled to the brim with job applications and midterm examinations and colds that just won’t go away—to help me celebrate my life. As they burst into my study room, I was actually typing away at the first draft of this very article. I was so focused on all the anxiety weighing on my birthday that I forgot how lucky I am to have people in my life who want to share this day with me. That’s what really changes as we grow older. We accrue more and more people who love us, more and more people who want to celebrate us.

The adage that age is just a number rings true on my 22nd birthday. While I feel less certain at 22 than I did at 18, that’s actually OK. Life is more complicated now, and there are more options available to me. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not the biggest Taylor Swift fan, and I’d actually never listened to her anthem “22” until this very morning. While I’m going to refrain from commenting on T-Swift’s musical stylings (after all, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women), I’m going to leave you with a nugget of genuine wisdom:

“We’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.
It’s miserable and magical, oh yeah.
Tonight’s the night when we forget about the deadlines.”


Remember to enjoy the present. Especially if you’re twenty-two.

Cover photo by Abbie Redmon.
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How did 22 make you feel? Tell us @litdarling.

View Comments (6)
  • “To help me celebrate my life.” A beautiful way of putting it. I’ve never considered that. But, as a guy, I felt almost everything you’re talking about. Im not many months into my 22nd year and it’s proven to be more poignant than I anticipated, and for exactly these reasons. The uncertainty, the sense that you’re existing in some purgatory between the past and future. It’s been more formative than the 21st year, clouded as that year was with the confetti and streamers of midday drinks and whatnot. You e got a lot to look forward to. Cheers to a great article.

    • Thanks so much, Alex. This definitely feels like a curiously universal experience, at least from what my friends have to say – glad to hear that my thoughts on the subject resonated with you.

  • Happy birthday! :) Thank you for this article. I turned 22 3 months ago and I completely understand the feeling! It took me weeks to get used to saying “I’m 22”. But at the end of the day, we should just be grateful for what we have. We shouldn’t freak out about our futures, because we have opportunities and we have the choice. Some people aren’t that lucky.

    • Thanks, Amelie. You’ve exactly captured what I’m trying to keep in mind – and will continue to, as the year progresses – because we are so very lucky, simply because all this uncertainty really pivots around the multiplicity of options that lie ahead.

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