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Opinion: The Sisyphean nightmare of being 20-something

I’m too old to be too young and I hate it.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
Making decisions over and over again is hard.

I was standing in the bread aisle of Cub Foods when it hit me: I would be choosing what to eat for dinner almost every night for the rest of my life. The basket I filled with expensive groceries would be gone as quickly as I could collect them and, before long, I’d be standing in that bread aisle, again.

There are few things more jarring than realizing how boring it is to maintain a life. I don’t care what anybody says: your 20s cannot be the best years of your life. They are merely a Sisyphean mirage of futility meant to strengthen your tolerance for stupidity as you fall in line with the real world. This undeniably stupid plight must be named to be overcome.

“I think being away from home is really fun. I like being able to be on my own, but it’s definitely been an adjustment,” said Keaton Amundson, a first-year at the University of Minnesota.

Her reflections on the honeymoon phase of adolescence reminded me of my own experience as a sweet summer child, just entering the world. I began to feel guilty for being so jaded by compounding minor inconveniences.

But then I remembered I had to decide what to have for dinner tonight and the angst came rushing back.

I know, I know. What kind of a spoiled brat complains about the privilege of having reliable access to food?

It’s not dinner, see. It’s the decision to make dinner. What to have, then how to make it, to do the dishes and put them away. Every day is made of a thousand small decisions that ultimately add up to a life. This is exactly why it is confusing to feel so weighed down by the monotony of chores required to maintain homeostasis when you’re finally on your own. It’s high stakes. But then again, it isn’t.

One important feature of life as a 20-something is the belief that your unique brand of suffering has never been experienced before, followed by the subsequent ego death when you realize that literally everybody has. Is there anything more embarrassing?

As a child, I imagined that being in my 20s meant unadulterated freedom.

In reality, it’s unopened self-help books on the nightstand and piles of clothes on “the chair” you should have folded weeks ago. Running out the door with half a protein bar in hand and missed calls from Mom that are starting to pile up.

It’s finally moving away from your hometown and dreaming of the next time you get to visit. $12 in your bank account ‘til Wednesday and splitting a bottle of wine at dinner with friends.

An age marked by transition and change cannot also be fun. I’m sorry, I won’t accept it. But the moral of Sisyphus’ condition, and perhaps that of our own, is to find a way to enjoy the hardships that life inevitably involves.

I haven’t made it there yet, but I imagine the peace you find the older you get is rooted in the realization that these small, futile tasks can set you free from the expectation that life must be anything else.

Coming of age is nothing like the idealistic stories that make the silver screen. Less falling in love and more learning how to unclog a shower drain, but we shouldn’t let the lie that your 20s are the time of your life detract from the often messy joy that can be found in being a directionless nightmare, either.

I think, more than anything, people in their 20s just want to know they’re not alone, they’re alive and in the world in one way or another. All of that wisdom that seems to magically materialize the older you get comes from experiencing exactly this.

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  • Mick M.
    Nov 29, 2023 at 11:01 am

    I have high-functioning depression and this article somehow captures feelings I’ve had for a long time that I felt I didn’t have the words to properly express. It’s kind of reassuring to know that there are others who struggle with the idea of the day-to-day in a similar existential way.
    Thank you for this article, it addresses very real feelings and issues with how life is portrayed in media that aren’t talked about enough.

  • Caleb Myers
    Nov 29, 2023 at 12:16 am

    This article totally captures what it’s like to be in your 20s today. As a 22 year old, I appreciate the writer’s honesty about the everyday struggles we all face – she’s spot on. Props to them for keeping it real and making me feel seen. Looking forward to more relatable insights from Kelly!