Musings of an old soul: “I've never been good at being young.”
A mystery writer, a resonant phrase, a life-time of embracing myself.
By Uma Patel, Contributor
On a hot Sunday afternoon, I sat with my laptop open in a coffee shop. I was working on a venture capital program application and sipping a lavender oat latte. After spending the summer of 2018 working on Wall Street, applying to this notoriously selective program felt like the perfect next step. Something caught my eye. Across from me, sat an elderly woman and a man in his early thirties working from a single laptop. After a few minutes of eaves-dropping, I found out that the woman was writing a memoir and the man was her editor. From the natural cadence of their interaction it seemed like they did this quite frequently.
I zoned back into my application. I glanced around the cafe, trying to muster up a few sentences to make the said company feel special. Behind the buzz of typing and chatter, I hear:
"I've never been good at being young."
The elderly woman across from me was discussing an opening line to her memoir. It sent chills throughout my body.
I thought to myself: That’s it. That's how I feel, and that's how I’ve always felt. I immediately opened the Notes app on my laptop and typed it word for word and signed it: "Woman in the coffee shop." At that point, all I wanted to do was sit down next to her and explain how heavy this feeling has been on my consciousness — how the seven words that just came out of her mouth seemed to temporarily lift all that weight. I resisted. I continued working on my application but my brain was toying with this all-encompassing phrase. The WiFi started to break up, and I took it as a sign to leave and make the trek back to Columbus Circle.
I've been trying to find this memoir and mystery author ever since that day, but until then, the phrase is everywhere.
"I've never been good at being young."
I write it in the margins of books, on post-it notes, in the notes on my phone. To me, the memory of that woman and her striking line is a reminder that I’m not the only one that feels frustrated by the pressures of living my youth to the fullest.
photo credit: Uma Patel
I’m not exactly sure where this feeling originated from.
But ever since I could remember, people have called me an “old soul.” I was quiet, observational, and pretty much always in my head. I preferred the company of those older than me. I’ve been told that I have this overarching presence that I just know something that others don’t.
Some may call this introversion mixed with self-awareness, but to me, it felt like a glass wall.
I could see what those around me did and how they acted, but when I reached out to join, it never felt like I could make it. I would feel a resistance inside me saying, "This just isn't for you." Instead of taking it as it was — my intuition — I took it as an affliction. Why was I so aware of my surroundings? How can I stop reading people all the time? How much alone time do I need to be able to socialize this week? I was constantly frustrated by the messages my body was sending me every time it seemed to go against what society would deem as "fun," "rebellious," or "cool."
If you ask one of my childhood friends, I was probably the most stressed teenager they’d met. I cared about the trajectory of my life every second of the day. My parents had to push me to go to school dances and concerts. Indian classical dance class, which was supposed to be a fun hobby, became a second job to me. Those things meant the world to me, but they also made me feel like I was somehow wasting my youth. I wasn’t being fun, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to be a kid.
In society, youth is synonymous with immaturity and making mistakes. And somehow, you have to get this out of your system in time for adulthood. This idea is flawed for two reasons: 1.) We can never escape the human tendency to mess up regardless of our age, and 2.) Telling ourselves that we can “let loose for a few years and get serious later” creates an endless amount of pressure to do it right.
I carried the burden of being too serious for years.
It felt like I could never be my age and seeing groups of friends hanging out left me feeling a bit jealous and bitter. In all honesty, I still have those days. There are times when I’m at a museum by myself or working in a coffee shop and I spot a group of friends hanging out, and all I want to do is go home and cry.
photo credit: Uma Patel
As I reflect on this feeling as I get older, I realize:
It’s less about being young and more about fitting in.
— It makes sense. Growing up as a first gen. Hindu Indian-American in a predominantly white Catholic neighborhood meant that I was always trying to make sense of my identity in conversation with those around me. I study everyone around me and see who got the most attention, who was well-liked, what was accepted, and cross check that against myself. For those who watch people with this level of awareness will know that it can be highly exhausting.
A quote by Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector perfectly summarizes this feeling:
"Could it be that those who see things more clearly are also those who feel and suffer the most?"
Instead of just accepting that I might not be the norm, I was angry that I couldn't match it. Instead of realizing that it just wasn't who I was, I fought the barriers that kept me from being like the others. I interpreted my inability to be easily liked as my inability to be young and fun.
There isn't a list of things I have to check off after hitting another age. And if something makes me uncomfortable or anxious, listening to my body is far more helpful than listening to people tell me, "But you're young," or “Enjoy your youth.” To me, these lines of supposed encouragement only left me feeling anxious.
Was I not making the most of my youth? Am I doing it all wrong?
In moments of doubt, I realized I was around the wrong people.
I needed to find people who were more compatible and accepting of me and my boundaries.
When we stay within what we know, it’s hard to realize that there might be a better fit out there.
I started to meet my people toward the end of high school. Only after building better relationships have I started to give myself more leeway in being who I am. The line will always be close to me — however, I know now that it’s not about me doing it wrong, but rather, it’s about having the patience to find friends who make me feel secure with how I want to live.
So, although I don't entirely agree that there is a way to even “be good at being young,”
I still hold this phrase close to me whenever I start to doubt if I'm doing it right, because a right way doesn’t exist.
Yes, there may be societal norms and popular go-to's, but none of us should be inclined to abide by them. I'm working every day to let myself be me without cross-checking it against others, but it's a process. I'm sure even if you don't identify with this existential crisis around being the perfect youngster, we all know the desire to fit in, to be well-liked, and be on the right track in society's eyes. That is ultimately what I'm trying to unlearn. I’m working on giving myself room to be and own whoever I am, because at the end of the day, there is no rulebook to life. As Durga Chew-Bose writes in Too Much and Not the Mood:
“I’ve been so young for so long and so old for longer — so heart-wrinkled and naive all at once.”
About — Uma Patel is a first generation Indian-American college student studying Chemistry and Computer Science at Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College. In 2020, she started a fem-tech platform on Instagram with her friend Melinda Hu, called Let’s Sync Health (@lets.sync.health), with an aim to provide approachable and inclusive women’s health content. In her free time she enjoys taking both film and digital photography (@umaypatel), going to art museums, and finding new coffee shops. She’s lived in Philadelphia, New York City and now Boston as she works toward breaking into Venture Capital and writing her book on female polymaths.Cover photo credit: Uma Patel, @umaypatel