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That moment when the neighborhood drunk looks happier than you.

An excerpt from A Restless Age by Austin Gohn

Published on:
April 23, 2019
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6 min.
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The quarter-life crisis is the new midlife crisis. If you haven’t had one yet, it’s probably coming soon. In fact, 70 percent of twenty-five- to thirty-three-year-olds claim to have one.[1]  So, unless you’re the lucky 30 percent who sails through their twenties while all your friends are drowning in uncertainty and self-doubt, what you’re experiencing is normal.

For some of us, it’s that moment when the promises of fame, financial security, and fulfillment fail to deliver the rest we’re searching for. As all our favorite Disney Channel stars know, fame fades. The gap between your income and your expenses, if there even is a gap, never feels wide enough. Feelings of fulfillment rise and fall depending on the day, and there never seem to be enough “likes” to bury the feelings of inadequacy we each feel. In an oft-quoted comment, Jim Carrey said, “I wish everyone would get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed so that they would know that it’s not the answer.” Whatever sense of rest these things give us is momentary and leaves us even more restless than before.

Others of us experience a quarter-life crisis when, no matter what our motivations are, we find ourselves stuck in jobs we hate. We never even had the chance to experience the inadequacy of fame, achievement, wealth, or fulfillment. It’s that moment when, after completing a college degree, you’re still at the Dairy Queen where you’ve been employed since you were old enough to drive. It’s that moment when your college debt payment is higher than your paycheck. It’s that moment when you’re 27 and you still can’t find a job that can get you out of your old bedroom—the one with the Ken Griffey Jr. or High School Musical poster still on the wall (or both, I’m sad to say, if you’re me). It’s that moment when you find out no one wants to hire a twenty-two-year-old with a degree in eighteenth-century French literature and a minor in zoology. It’s in these moments, when anxiety and fear and uncertainty and restlessness hit us with full strength, that we start to question whether a job can ever give us what we really want.

The quarter-life crisis is not as new as Millennial-haters make it out to be.

The quarter-life crisis is not as new as Millennial-haters make it out to be. While Augustine was living and working in Milan, he had an experience that completely destabilized his plans for what he wanted to do with his life (even if, due to differences in life expectancy, it might be nearer to a third-life crisis). He had a killer career and was preparing to deliver a speech in praise of the emperor—the ultimate resume-building activity—to win the approval of everyone else who was trying to fake it until they could make it. Yet, trying to prepare this speech was filling him with a paralyzing anxiety. He writes, “My heart was issuing furnace-blasts of anxiety over this assignment, and seething with the fever of the obsessive thoughts disintegrating me from within.” As all these fears and anxious thoughts were running wild in his head, he saw a tipsy beggar who was obviously enjoying his own life far more than Augustine was enjoying his. He writes,

In all our kinds of effort, like the effort straining me so badly now—when my longings sharply prodded me to drag along a load of my own unhappiness that was heaped up higher and higher with the exhaustion of dragging it—we didn’t want anything but to reach a state of carefree enjoyment; that beggar had beaten me to it, and perhaps we were never going to arrive. Toward what he’d achieved already—which was evidently the enjoyment of a strictly time-bound happiness—with just a tiny handful of small change he’d panhandled, I was taking a woefully winding course, advancing myself by paths that circled back on themselves. He didn’t have true joy, but I with all my bids for advancement was in quest of something much less real. He was enjoying himself, no doubt about it, while I was in distress; he was carefree, while I was shaking in my shoes.[2]

Augustine had done all the right things. He pursued the right education. He lived in the right city. He had the right credentials. He had the right job. He had the right network. Yet, here he was having a nervous breakdown while the neighborhood drunk was having the time of his life. He was slaving away to please other people, using lies to maintain an image that would impress all his friends. He was living for a glory that would fade, a paycheck that would run out, and the perfect career that would always be running away from him.

Yet, even after realizing his friends were experiencing the same anxieties on their own career paths, he stuck the course. He felt like it would be “embarrassing” to quit after coming so far. He had already made so much “progress” toward an elite career opportunity in “some high public office.” He writes, “What more is there to wish for in this world? Plenty of powerful friends are backing us; providing that we pour our effort—a lot of effort—into one thing, we could even be granted a lower-ranking governorship.”[3]  He was too deep in the pursuit of his dream to give up now, but the chase was not as wholehearted as it was before. His original fire for making as much money as possible and for advancing in his career was going out. “I was unhappy with what I was doing in the world of time,” he writes, “and it was a great burden to me.”[4]  Augustine, not unlike many of us, was haunted by the possibility that he would never find the rest he was looking for in a career.

You’ve Been Snared by Something Untrue

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace tells the story of students at an elite tennis academy in the Boston area. Many of these students can think about nothing other than advancing in the national tennis rankings for their age group. In one scene, LaMont Chu and Lyle, two students at the academy, are discussing what it might be like to finally be famous enough to appear in a magazine. LaMont feels like getting in a magazine would finally give his life “some sort of meaning,” even if he is not sure exactly why. This conversation unfolds:

Lyle: You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive intense meaning.

LaMont: I do. They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel . . .

Lyle: LaMont, perhaps they did at first. The first photograph, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of the image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for . . . LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal.[5] 

"You have been snared by something untrue." In other words, LaMont is longing for an experience that he thinks the famous are constantly experiencing. Celebrities aren’t feeling what he thinks they’re feeling. This is as true for the pull of fame as it is for every other motivation.

If we’re searching for fame, achievement, wealth, or meaning in our work, we have been snared by something untrue. This was the same snare that trapped Augustine and traps so many young adults like us.

If we’re searching for fame, achievement, wealth, or meaning in our work, we have been snared by something untrue. This was the same snare that trapped Augustine and traps so many young adults like us. We’ve been snared by the lie that if we could just get these things, then our lives, our minds—our souls!—would finally be at rest. We could finally take a deep breath and glide through the rest of our lives. What we find instead, though, if we ever get there, is that these things can only give us a momentary, fleeting taste of a rest much less real than even what the neighborhood drunk was able to achieve.

Timothy Keller, in his book Every Good Endeavor, calls all these things “the work under the work.”[6]  It’s the work of proving ourselves through achievement, the work of finding a sense of worth through fame, the work of attaining peace through paychecks, the work of discovering meaning in the perfect job. It’s the work we are still doing even after we clock out for the evening. Wallace describes it as “worship[ing] the carrot.”[7]  Like a cruel master, the work under the work makes us believe that we are getting closer and closer to the carrot hanging in front of us—only to find out that the carrot takes a step forward with every step we take toward it.

Austin Gohn
Austin Gohn is a pastor at Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a student at Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of a forthcoming book from Gospel-Centered Discipleship on Augustine’s Confessions and young adulthood.

[1] Blair Decembrele, “Encountering a Quarter-Life Crisis: You’re Not Alone . . .,” LinkedIn, November 15, 2017, https://blog.linkedin.com/2017/november/15/encountering-a-quarter-life-crisis-you-are-not-alone.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, Translated by Sarah Ruden (New York: Modern Library, 2017), 6.9.

[3] Augustine, Confessions, 6.19.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 8.2.

[5] David Foster Wallace,Infinite Jest(New York: Back Bay Books, 2016), 388-389.

[6] Timothy Keller,Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Penguin, 2012), 234.

[7] Wallace,Infinite Jest, 693.

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