I used to firmly believe that it was never too late to start over.
At the age of eighteen I printed out the quote “It is never too late to be what you might have been” by George Eliot and hung it on my wall for the next three years. It seemed to be the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card any time anxiety began rearing its head.
I had time to make so many wrong choices. I had unlimited time left to correct (and re-correct) my course.
And to an extent, this quote holds true.
As long as we’re still breathing, there is (and always will be) time to start over.
It’s just that the older we get, the higher a price we start paying for those fresh starts.
At eighteen or twenty or twenty-two, it’s easy to throw your life into a backpack, charge a plane ticket to your credit card and figure out your next step as you go. You’re young. You’re unestablished. Most of the people around you are transient, so there’s no reason for you not to be as well.
If you’re lucky, nobody you know has major health issues. If you’re lucky, nobody you love is dependent on you financially or emotionally or physically.
It’s easy to be untethered at twenty-one or two or three because the opportunity cost of ‘leaving it all behind’ is essentially nothing. And that’s a wonderful thing that should be fully taken advantage of (that is, if leaving is what you want to do).
But lately I’ve been questioning that George Eliot quote that I used to so adamantly swear by.
I think that at some point, we have to lay to rest the people we might have become.
The explorers who took on the world. The lovers who saw certain relationships through. The dreams that we once failed to realize. The challenges we never took on.
Because at a certain point, those versions of ourselves come with opportunity costs.
What happens when realizing one dream means giving up another? What happens when chasing ‘the one who got away’ means asking them to give up the one they found in your absence? What happens when the price tag on your outdated ambitions starts to include the life that you built in the meantime?
Because the truth is, the older we get, the harder it becomes to just ditch our lives and leave it all behind.
We have people who depend on us. We have families members who are aging. We have careers that we don’t want to walk away from. We have commitments that have become a part of who we are.
And we can look at those commitments in one of two ways: as though they are inescapable ball-and-chains or as though they are the anchors we need.
Because the thing is, it’s fun to be untethered. It’s fun to explore. It’s fun to feel attached to nothing and open to everything. It’s fun, when and if, in the back of your mind, you know you have a safe place to return to.
It’s fun to travel when you know that your parents are in great health and you can come back and stay in their basement if (and when) you run out of money. It’s fun to take daring new risks, when you know that your friends are cool with you crashing on their couches anytime you’re in town (because you can’t hold down an apartment lease yourself). It’s cool to explore when you have those safe bases to fall back on.
But part of adulthood is becoming your own safe base. And sometimes, that means opting for security where you once chose adventure.
Because eventually, your parents age (and die). Your friends settle down and start families of their own. And the entry-level jobs you picked up with ease at eighteen or twenty or twenty-two when you needed some fast cash for your next adventure stop looking as appealing.
You start learning to provide for yourself. You start learning to be the safe base for other people.
The couch your friends can crash on. The provider your family can rely on.
It gets harder to start over as we get older because we grow into our bigger, adult shoes and they are not uncomplicated garments to unlace.
Nor should they be.
Because as limiting as adulthood can feel – as stuck and as claustrophobic as it can make us feel, it also offers us the ultimate form of liberty.
The liberty to rely on ourselves. To provide for ourselves. To become a person who isn’t dependent on our parents or our friends or our community members or even our youthful exuberance and energy.
It provides us the opportunity to put down roots in a way that matters to us. To finally survey our lives – after all of our exploring – and decide which parts of it to keep. Which parts to focus on. Which parts to nurture and grow into something astounding.
If being young is about exploring, than perhaps growing up is about flourishing.
It’s about recognizing what matters most to us and holding onto that. Optimizing that. Relishing in that.
And instead of packing our bags and planning our escape every time the going gets tough, we learn to weather the storms that come our way. We learn to stick it out and fight for what matters to us most.
We learn that the people we might have been live on inside of us – they always have and they always will.
But for now, our job is to grow into the best possible versions of the people we are.
And it is not a bad job to be left with.