I turned twenty-four today.
Sure, it’s the second to last time the first digit of my age raised to the power of itself will equal the second (2^2 = 4; catch me again at 39), but I’m not here to talk about math. I’m here to talk about peanut butter–the metaphorical kind (although I’m also a huge fan of the literal kind).
The fact of the matter is that most of us didn’t eat enough peanut butter growing up, and, now that we’re getting older, it’s starting to become a problem.
Don’t fret. I’m going to explain what can be done to remedy the peanut-butter-deficient years of our youth. But as with any problem, to solve it, we must first understand it. And as with any problem with roots in our youth, to understand it, we must first take a walk down memory lane.
All aboard the S.S. Nostalgia. Next stop: wallowing in existential dread.
The way I see it, at some point, between ages two and six, you wake up in a dream. Everyone has a first memory. It doesn’t particularly matter what or when it is. All that matters is that before said memory, you might as well not have existed at all. For all you know, you were placed into the world at that very moment by Elon Musk or Anthony Hopkins or whoever is running our simulation. You literally wouldn’t know the difference. Anyways, for the purpose of the ensuing journey, meet me halfway and we’ll say you woke up on your fourth birthday.
Congratulations, you probably just graduated pre-school. Do you want a cookie? (You’re four so the answer is most likely yes). Ah to be four again. Existence as a volatile ball of snot and tears is about as fun as it sounds. No one is quite sure which of the two will be all over your face next, least of all you.
Life is pretty awesome. You’re really getting the hang of the whole “not going to the bathroom in your pants” thing—a huge accomplishment. You are mighty! Kindergarten is starting in a few months. That is quite exciting given you’re still a few years away from thinking boys/girls have cooties. Oh, and your classmates aren’t quite smart enough to be mean yet. Not too complicated, right?
Let’s fast forward a few years.
Now you’re eight. Yeah sure, you’ve doubled your lifespan since our last checkpoint, but relax, you’re eight. Third grade is a strange time. You trade in your paintbrush for a times table and your nap mat for a Dr. Seuss book. Hardly a fair trade in your eyes, but you’ll understand someday (maybe). Learning is hard, which is frustrating, but no matter for you. You are a recess warrior. You live for the lunch bell. The kickball field is where you come alive. The insecure bullies are slowly starting to separate themselves from the insecure shy kids, but none of this really matters. You won’t remember much from this stage in your life (though I’m sure Freud might have other things to say on the matter).
Let’s jump forward another couple of years.
Now you’re twelve, almost a teenager! Unfortunately for you, somewhere along the way, being innocent and cute gave way to being awkward and moody. Not ideal timing, considering you just got over your cooties phase. There’s some awfully strange stuff going on inside your body. Math has letters now, a particularly unfortunate development. The bullies are really hitting their stride, having honed their craft over the years on the elementary school playground. They now know exactly what to say to make you feel like a real, grade-A piece of human garbage (though in time you’ll come to realize they were the true pieces of trash). You’re also in that phase where you have enough control over your emotions to think, but not enough experience to have thoughts that are useful, and not enough wisdom to recognize that your thoughts aren’t useful. Hilarity ensues. But hey, Bar Mitzvahs right?
Let’s leap forward another few years to your sixteenth birthday.
You probably just got your driver’s license. Mazel tov, a big milestone indeed. The sky is the limit. A twenty-minute scooter ride to Krispy Kreme has become a three-minute drive—something twelve-year-old you would certainly be in awe of. Anyways, life has really been heating up since we last checked in. You just started studying for the SAT so you can get a good score and go to a good college. The reason you want to go to a good college is so you can get a good job so you can pay for your kids to get an SAT tutor so they can go to a good college so they can get a good job so they can pay for their kids to get an SAT tutor so…you get the point. Societal commentary aside, being 16 is pretty great. You still don’t really understand how life works, but you think you do, and that definitely counts for something! Only two more years until you can legally buy dry ice!
Let’s tack on another two years.
Nice work! You graduated high school you big, successful eighteen-year-old you. A certificate signed by some lady you’ve probably never spoken to signals to the world that you [insert name] can memorize things. Watch out world! Ain’t no mountain (of flashcards) high enough, to keep you from getting to wherever it is you are going. Right now, that “wherever” is college. “The greatest four years of your life” according to everyone who is older than you. I was going to say wiser than you, but soon you’ll learn age and wisdom aren’t correlated. That, however, is for twenty-two-year-old you to discover, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Let’s jump forward another year.
With freshman year (figuratively) and a full year of buffet dining (literally) under your belt, you wonder what the world could possibly throw your way that you wouldn’t be able to handle. Things are really trending up. You’re making lots of new friends (most of whom you will no longer be friends with by the time senior rolls around). Your weekly ratio of classes attended to pizzas consumed after 3:00am is slowly approaching 1, a milestone that could only be reached through hard work and dedication. Seven-year-old you would be so proud! Three more years on this trajectory and you’ll have yourself a bachelor’s degree! Don’t blink. You might open your eyes and be at graduation.
You blinked didn’t you. Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
Anyways, here you are, listening to some girl you didn’t even know went to your school give an impassioned speech on what graduating means to her and why you should feel the same way. You fan yourself with the commencement agenda you told yourself you’d keep forever to show your grandkids, but later decided it would be better utilized as the canvas for your first foray into self-taught Japanese Origami. Five speeches and three poorly folded swans later, the horns have sounded and the confetti has settled—it’s over. You are a college graduate. You’ve spent your entire life working towards this moment. Alas! Now what? “I didn’t think I’d get this far” you find yourself thinking. Not a very useful answer, but sadly you are neither wrong nor alone in thinking this. It definitely wasn’t easy to get here. Unfortunately for you, no one cares (but you don’t know that just yet).
Fast forward a few months through a well-spent summer of doing basically nothing—a luxury you will likely not enjoy again until your mid-sixties. But you don’t do it because you have enough foresight to bask in the glory of the blank canvas that is currently your life. No, you do it because you are a lazy, directionless sack of potatoes staring down the barrel of a fourty+ year career that statistically you’ll hate and the sheer thought of that induces a wave of anxiety and existential dread so crippling, that it could only be combatted by re-watching every episode of Jersey Shore…twice. But I mean tomato tomáto right? Anyways, I hope you had fun. Time for work!
Let’s skip forward a bit, things are about to get spicy.
You’re two months into your new job at [insert name of investment bank or consulting firm]. “This is new” you find yourself thinking. You can’t quite put your finger on what, but then it hits you. First slowly, then all at once. You slowly emerge from the thick fog of lies you’ve been living in over the last twenty-two years. The realizations are roughly along the lines of the following:
Most of the skills and knowledge you have accumulated thus far are largely useless.
The narrow path with very little room for critical thinking, decision making or risk-taking, otherwise known as “your life from birth until age twenty-two” has ended and the world, for better or for worse, is now your oyster (a thought too scary to be exciting…yet).
You’ve spent your entire life abiding by conventional wisdom, expecting unconventional results. Unlike the Chipotle burrito that you order four times per week on DoorDash because you’re too lazy to walk two blocks to pick it up yourself, those unconventional results aren’t just going to show up on your doorstep. This one is more commonly referred to by its colloquial name “life’s not fair.”
It is no longer about what you have done. Now it’s about what you can do. Until this point, those two were basically the same. “You memorized flashcards at [ ] high school? Great, you sound like a great candidate to memorize flashcards at [ ] university.” Well, here in the real world, you have to do this thing called “think” and oh boy are you ill-equipped to do that. Dang, school really pulled a fast one on you! But now isn’t the time to wish for a blueprint for a structurally sound education system and a functioning time machine.
You are allergic to peanut butter. Super allergic, but you also don’t have to be. Well not literally. Hear me out.
Israel has the lowest incidence of peanut allergies in the world and it’s not a coincidence. No, quite the opposite actually. From a young age, Israeli children eat a snack called Bamba. An elite snack by any measure of quality, Bamba also has quite a unique property: it contains trace amounts of peanuts. Consequently, children who grow up eating Bamba tend not to develop peanut allergies. That is to say, exposure to peanuts breeds immunity from them.
So, what do peanut allergies have to do with growing up?
Well, I like to think the same exposure/immunity relationship holds with unpleasant truths. Society tries (often to no avail) to shelter us from all that is “bad” in the world, in the name of trying to protect us. What society doesn’t realize is that in its effort to protect us, we are made more fragile. It is not simply healthy to be exposed to unpleasant truths in small doses, it is absolutely necessary. It allows us to build immunity and resilience. It prevents the all-too-common situation where we spend our entire life in a precarious bubble of comforting lies, only to be released into the real world, all at once, with no practical armor against the harsh truths that lie beyond.
Unfortunately, that isn’t even the worst part. Not only does society breed peanut allergies, but it also tells us it isn’t okay to be allergic to peanuts. In a dastardly one-two punch, it couples an utter lack of preparation for the real world, with a suffocating pressure to always be prepared (or at least pretend like we are). Pressure to fasten on that fake smile and pretend everything is okay (even though it usually isn’t). To admit any semblance of struggle is to be labeled “weak.” We are conditioned to seek solace in comforting lies rather than find meaning in unpleasant truths (my favorites include “you’re not special” and “no one is coming to save you”). We are released into a world we are not prepared for, and not allowed to admit we are not prepared.
This is all to say, somewhere along the line, we lost the plot. We spent our lives studying a faulty map, being told that if we could read the map we could traverse the terrain. We were shielded from roadblocks in the name of progress. We were encouraged to seek comfort in the name of caution. We were conditioned to romanticize the idea of romance in the name of love. As a product, we sat idle while society chiseled us into our own biggest obstacle. As a product, we became so engrossed in the chase, we never stopped to question what we were chasing, why we were chasing it, and if we even wanted it in the first place. As a product, we fell more in love with the idea of love than we did with the person/place/craft we were meant to be loving.
We did not choose when we were born, where we grew up, or what we were taught. We sit here today, however, a product of all these things. We spent the first two decades of our lives being conditioned to want things we could never possibly have. To strive for things that could never possibly be attained (and if they could, would never possibly fulfill us). It isn’t our fault for turning out the way we did, but it is our fault if we stay that way. It is our fault because we are the only ones capable of doing anything about it.
The way I see it, we all have a decision to make. Two choices. Our potential as individuals, everything we might ever dream of becoming, depends on which we choose.
We can choose to continue to let others tell us what to think and how to feel—continue to be passive characters in the story that is our lives—to live beneath the fog. Or we can choose to snatch the pen (and the spoon), eat some peanut butter, decide the type of person we want to be, and write the greatest story the world has ever seen.
Being a fool when we’re young is inevitable, staying a fool is a choice.
Each of us gets to choose, for it is choice, not chance, that determines our destiny.
I choose to eat peanut butter.
Thank you to everyone who made 23 so amazing! I am excited to see what 24 has in store. A special thank you to a special person who encouraged me to dust off this essay and publish it to the world…for better or for worse :) Happy scooping!