Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
I am in my early twenties, which appears to be a time when people decide that they are Actually Grown-Ups, and thus must act as such. I am quite happy not to resign myself to boring normality and have been known to revel in life in a variety of creative ways. I don’t particularly want to give this up just yet.
Meanwhile, some of my older friends who have declared themselves adults have decided that this means I am a Bad Influence. This in itself would not be so bad, except that they have decided that means I must be avoided to the point of deflecting me from social gatherings in the larger group.
What really bugs me about all this is that these aren’t people who know me or my habits particularly well (at least as of late), and it seems like their snap judgments of my character have established a more wide-ranging social policy, even though they’ve never approached me personally with their concerns.
What should I do? Must I hang up my green hat and fairy dust? Should I find a group of other Lost Boys? Or is there a diplomatic way to talk to someone who seems to have a problem with you, without being overly confrontational?
Degenerate Peter Pan
Your problem is . . . quite vague, if it is even a problem at all. So let’s start at the beginning.
This revelry in question—what are we talking about here? Are you playing Pokemon Go? Indulging in live-action role playing? Ostentatiously reading Young Adult literature on the train in full view of other adults? If that’s the sort of behavior calling down all this self-styled mature criticism, don’t worry about it. There’s nothing wrong with childish hobbies. Despite all the conspicuous fretting over the alleged arrested development of the Millennial Generation, we all live in a bleak neoliberal hellscape and nostalgia for youthful past times is an understandable and generally healthy coping mechanism.
But, Mr. Pan, are you being obnoxious? Self-absorbed? Inconsiderate? Are you blowing sailors and doing whip-its at fancy dinner parties while the host passes the canapes aghast? Does your behavior affect others in a direct way, or are these people simply gossiping about things that don’t involve them? These are crucial questions that only you can answer, but it’s always important to remember that the line between bon vivant and thoughtless can be a little blurry.
And who are these “older friends?” You say they don’t know you very well, but also manage to enjoy some influence on your larger social circle? These people don’t really have the power to make you a social pariah, but if you’re being excluded, by all means expand your social life—you’re in your early twenties, after all, and should be doing that anyway. By all means, divest yourself of frenemies—but you also don’t have to send your mutual friends packing alongside said frenemies. No large social group is ever going to be universally harmonious, and you shouldn’t stress out too much over a friend of a friend who might not care for you.
In short, Mr. Pan, your social conflict sounds awkward, but it doesn’t sound like a problem. It sounds like drama. It’s, perhaps exacerbated by some understandable anxiety on your part, but I caution you against becoming unduly solicitous of the judgments of others. In fact, at the risk of echoing the plaints of your alleged grown-up detractors, I have to say that your concerns seem to possess a charming sort of immaturity—though one that is exactly on track for your age. And that brings us, in turn, back to the thorny concept of being a “grown-up” (which is, incidentally, something almost no grown-up ever feels like).
As a Bad Influence myself, I mostly define adulthood as “no longer waking up outdoors.” But there are a few really meaningful skills one acquires with age, and one of those is purposeful obliviousness—sprezzatura, if you will. You see, for most people, a large part of the neurotic teen years are spent developing self-awareness and a sense of identity. And by your early twenties, the college years have tended to hone these frail personality constructs into something more sophisticated. However, the real relief comes when you learn to turn all that self-defining background off. Not giving a shit—and I mean really not giving a shit—is a skill. It cannot be faked, nor can it ever be totally mastered, but it is exactly the grown-up superpower necessary to glide coolly through a “maybe people who don’t know me very well are judging me harshly” kind of situation.
Paradoxically enough, it turns out that a large part of growing up is not necessarily learning how to deal with every situation; sometimes it’s realizing which situations are small potatoes, and thus beneath your concern. In other words: As you enjoy your early twenties, start learning how to ignore petty bullshit.
I’m not saying you should ignore a pattern of disapproval from ostensible friends or even from strangers, but cliquey nastiness often runs rampant in the social lives of twentysomethings. If you’re concerned about your maturity or your behavior, I would advise you to look to people whose judgment and character you respect. And ideally this social circle would include at least a few people outside your own generation. Aside from a good therapist, true friends are your most valuable counsel—that, of course, and the bossy, judgmental guidance of a professional advice columnist.
Hold on to the precious fairy dust, my friend. Obviously, do your best to be kind and fair, take time for self-reflection, etc., but don’t sweat the little people and their little grudges. You’ll get better at this with practice. In the words of Dorothy Parker:
“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”