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The Horrible Pathos of Being Twenty

Monday, July 15, 2013
I received an email the other day--I will edit it and post it up tomorrow--that reminded me of how really horrible it can be to be twenty. I suppose it's okay for the "old souls" out there, whose adolescence-addled brain synapses have all reorganized themselves properly by then. However, I am thinking of the vast majority who have graduated into the adult world, looking like adults, but having only vague clues as to how to cope in the adult world. I think it is even more confusing if, like me at twenty, you are simultaneously an adult and a child living in your parents' house, with your parents treating you as a child, perhaps as an increasingly delinquent child, or worse, sometimes as a child, and sometimes as a pathetic adult who should be paying rent.

Unless you are an "old soul", being twenty is like being bipolar: everything is either super-amazing or deeply horrible. You struggle with a world that does not fit in with your preconceived notions, and sometimes you hang onto those preconceived notions despite strong evidence that they are wrong. You long for love and male admiration while vaguely feeling that others might think this shameful. Your brain is already overloaded with emotions and desires and you goad it on by, perhaps, watching romantic movies or sitting by a river reading The Sorrows of Young Werther to see if it will make you suicidal. (Okay, that was me, only no river.)

You may even live in a fog of wishful thinking thinking, and reality hurts so much, it's as if you have no skin. You do not know how to deal with male attention, and you do not know how to deal with lack of male attention. You exaggerate everything, and so do your friends. You make decisions based on how cool or romantic something seems, not on how practical or fruitful it is.

You think almost everyone else is smarter and less confused than you. If you are coping with men en masse for the first time, men your age are either gods or monsters in disguise. They are GOOD or they are BAD. They are INTOXICATING or they are BORING. If intoxicating, they are POTENTIAL FUTURE HUSBANDS or they are POTENTIAL RAPISTS. If you are traditionally religious, you might not even notice your terribly wounding sins of unkindness, and but even the lightest of sexual sins inspires lacerating self-hatred. 

That said, you are not completely pathetic, and you may have a clearer moral understanding than all the people around you. To cheer myself up, I will tell you about an incident from my life at twenty.

When I was twenty, and a mess of wishful thinking, preconceived notions, exaggeration and very likely undiagnosed clinical depression, I went away with my university drama club to an American city. My fellow actors were mostly grad students; I was the youngest and the only practicing Catholic. All the others seemed so old and smart and sophisticated. The professor was god-like and the grad students seemed virtual demi-gods.  

The very nicest man in the show was gay. I think he was the one who broke it to me that the guy in the show I had a crush on was gay, too. At any rate, this was the first nice openly gay man I had ever  met. (The others had been really nasty or super-scary or both.)

Our play was a medieval play, about one of the episodes in the life of Our Lady, and we performed it in a beautiful Catholic church. I vaguely remember the priest, but he was not very high on my radar. Unbeknownst to me, he soon began hitting on the nice gay man. For example, he invited him along to his gym. He kept this up the whole time we were there, and his intentions were so obvious that the nice gay man complained about them on our way home, as we were all eating lunch. He was a church-going Protestant gay man, and  Acting-out Catholic Priest was not the kind of man he wanted to bring home to his mother

I was horrified. I had never heard of such a thing. And how humiliating! A priest, a Catholic priest, a Catholic priest, hitting on a visiting gay actor from my university, from my very group! Of course, I had heard the horrible news reports about some priests in Newfoundland abusing boys, but I had never heard of an opportunist priest trying to seduce a grown-up man. 

Some years ago I saw a photograph of that roadside lunch of over 20 years ago. In it I look incredibly fluffy and sweet, like a sleepy baby rabbit.  

"Why didn't you tell me?" I cried to all those older, sophisticated non-Catholics. "I could have learned his last name! I could have written to his bishop!"

And all those older, sophisticated non-Catholics said, "That's why we didn't tell you."