NPR logo A Quarter-Life Crisis: When You Let Go Of 'I Will,' What's Next?

A Quarter-Life Crisis: When You Let Go Of 'I Will,' What's Next?

The core of a quarter-life crisis.
Robbie Porter/Getty Images/Ikon Images
The core of a quarter-life crisis.
Robbie Porter/Getty Images/Ikon Images

There's a funny thing about the future tense: It's all but impossible to deny. Take any verb, append the little word "will" to the front of it, and suddenly, you've got a proposition that's awfully tough to knock down. I will write, I will act, I will be — until the proposed moment comes along, until we find out, one way or the other, whether I have in fact done as promised, the possibility I will replenishes every time I speak it.

It's as if, through sheer force of "will," we can achieve anything of our choosing.

Just ask your local politician how convenient this sentence construction is — or, if you'd like to be a tad less cynical, just ask your favorite grade-school teachers how noble. Their students can tell you, even if the teachers don't. Seen from the classroom, from a squat little school desk facing the blackboard, the future often looks big enough to embrace your every phrase.

Think of all the milestones still strewn before you at that age: a first kiss, graduation, the prospect of learning piano, possibilities more than you can number and not necessarily in that order. If you're a millennial lucky enough to come from a reasonably comfortable upbringing, as I was, free from fears about your family's next paycheck or personal safety, it could seem that achieving your dreams was a simple matter of conjugation. Like problems on a grammar exercise, you will take care of them when you get to them.

Now here's another funny thing: At some point, you get to them. And naturally, for reasons both little and vast, they're never quite as straightforward as that little "will" would make them seem.

They weren't for me, at least, and they haven't been for anyone I've known. Perhaps that first kiss came not with Karen, as you'd been sure it would, but with Danielle — or with Daniel. Perhaps college wasn't in the cards, as you'd been sure it would be, or perhaps you only wish you hadn't gone to college, usually when your student loan payments come due. Perhaps (sadly, speaking personally now) my attempts at piano sounded less like Mozart, as I'd been sure they would, and more like a toddler with an anger problem.

All those countless "wills" haven't gotten their way; what remains is what there's always been — a brimming bucket of contradictions, a protean mess that seems to consist mostly of questions and inconsistencies, insecurities and quiet joys. In other words, I am and have been so many people, the only thing I know for sure these days is exactly who I'm not: the person I thought I'd be by now.

So, here is the full measure of my quarter-life crisis: the distance between myself and the self I'd envisioned, and the fact that this distance has gotten so big I can't help but acknowledge it. At 27, I've got to finally admit to myself that "will," that handy rhetorical crutch, won't be fixing anything for me. I've got to come to terms with the present tense.

Now, just please don't ask me how. I've gotten just far enough to be grateful to have such a problem, a privilege not possible without some economic security. Besides that, well, I've got to admit I don't have a clue how to embrace this self I'm struggling to recognize, or what to do with it next — or even how to ditch, if only for a moment, that pesky word "next."

But I am learning, I think. At any rate, I am — which is good enough for me, for now. And while I can't, in good conscience, tell you I've found any answers to this quarter-life crisis of mine, I can at least promise you this: I will.