Last week was my 30th birthday. I knew it was coming, but it didn’t hit me until this week: I’m not in my 20s anymore. If it’s really quiet, I can hear the hair start to grow in my ears. I begin to notice people 30 years my senior and their accomplishments and struggles with what age has done to them. Something about that makes me want to chronologically swim upstream, with the luck and results of a finless salmon at the base of Niagara Falls. It makes me look back at the past 30 years and wonder what I’ve done with all that time. It makes me look forward and wonder what I’m going to do with all that time. At times there seems to be nothing good that comes with age. Except, perhaps, coming of age.
It’s like Hannibal Lecter has leaned into my ear and whispered, “Tick-tock, Clarice.” The music in my life is building to a crescendo. My wife is expecting our first child in about a month. I finally have a job that pays me something that resembles a salary. My wife and I just bought our first home. There seems to be an indelible sense of purpose intricately weaving itself into my life.
Too bad that was not as obvious when I was 20, skipping all my classes to play “Tecmo Bowl” (anyone remember that?) and eat Chinese food with my friends. Too bad that was not as clear when I got my first credit card and bought and consumed until I could buy and consume no more (they wouldn’t let me). Too bad I didn’t realize what the pattern of fast food and little to no exercise does to a body when metabolism finally gives up.
I spent too many hours, days, weeks, months and years tearing down the me that I built in my early 20s. Trying to bring up my abysmal grade point average, trying to resuscitate my atrophied credit rating, trying to less resemble the Buddha I visited with my friends at the Chinese restaurant soaked (and soaks) up too much of my life that could have been lived forward, instead of in reverse.
Even my regrets and mistakes underscore deep marks on my character that will define me even after I’m gone. The grace to accept them for what they are, change, and learn from them is essential to successful living. Even though those things resulted from bad choices in my life, good things grew from them like blades of grass through concrete. I learned to …
Never give anyone a reason to doubt your word. (Especially those who you love, and the credit card people). My mom hung a cross-stitch picture in my room when I was young that reminded me that I got my name from my father. The name was good when I got it, and the cross-stitch reminded me that a black mark on that name could never be erased. Not that moms are into guilt or anything, but the phrases she stitched into that cloth were woven into my conscience. They would follow me forever, haunting me when they needed to.
When I broke my word with my mom, when I bounced checks on necessities after blowing money on what I wanted, when I made people wait because I couldn’t get where I needed to be when I said I would be there, marks appeared on my name in some people’s minds. Over time, those marks faded and blended in, remaining for the world to see until I disproved them, remaining for me forever in the big picture of who I am.
Love deliberately. Spend an inordinate amount of time doing things for and with other people. Get out of your culture and your comfort zone. Spend time listening to the elderly, having fun with children, hanging out with teenagers, serving those less fortunate than you. Find the place you can really pour yourself into, and do it.
Do things that matter. See above.
Make others a priority. We live in such a self-involved society. Living from the inside out instead of constantly focusing inward is key to living as Jesus lived. He was constantly pouring Himself out to others. Our reflection of His life in us makes that a more natural reaction in us. Refusing to be self-centered is one of the hardest (but most Christ-like) things that I have ever attempted to do.
Get involved in church. Stepping away from church at the end of my college years was one of the worst moves I made in my life. The sense of community that church provides is a vital incubator that I missed out on. I believe it stunted the speed and depth of my growth as a follower of Christ. I remember muttering something about “not being fed” as I drifted out of one fellowship into another, never really putting down roots or seeking out accountability. Well, I nearly starved myself by keeping myself not only from being fed, but also from breaking the bread of communion with people headed on the same journey that I was stumbling down.
Make room for grace in your life. For all of the things that I’ve done wrong in my life, my consolation is this: I’m not there anymore. I am no longer in that situation, making that wrong choice. I have moved on, learning what I needed to from those mistakes. That doesn’t always prevent me from making the wrong choices in the present (or unfortunately, in the future), but I’m learning to forgive myself as I’ve been forgiven.
There is something intrinsically human about never being satisfied with where we are. As a youth, I would wax poetically about all that was wrong with the world and what I would change. As I grew older, I would wax nostalgically about all that was good with the world when I was young. And then, one day, I’ll probably try to wax the hair that will inevitably grow out of my ears. Don’t let me.
[Bill Smith is a reluctant former twentysomething living near Cincinnati. He is a scheduling supervisor for a regional airline, a volunteer in the middle school program at Crossroads Community Church, a songwriter, a husband and in about two weeks, a dad.]
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