I had dinner with a friend who came to town the other week, and after a while, the conversation drifted from mutual friends and TV to this ... feeling. This feeling that we were trying to articulate while recognizing that we had our health and jobs and stability, and after the last 18 months, that is something to be profoundly grateful for. I kept stopping and starting sentences, hating how the words felt in my mouth and how ridiculous I felt giving this thought a voice. I have a job I like, friends and family I love, the best living situation I’ve had since I learned what paying rent felt like. These aren’t things I take for granted. They’re things I’ve worked for and am proud of. And the fact that this is the first time I have ever felt stable in my life is more indicative of the ways in which our society has failed us than anything else. But look, there it is again.. The feeling isn’t quite discontent, not quite unhappiness. It’s somewhere between “OK, this it,” and “Is this it?” This is my one precious life and this is who I am? Am I happy? Am I doing it right? Is anyone?
Published this spring, Rainesford Stauffer’s “An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional” is dedicated to exploring this feeling. It’s a book about the ways society fails us, the ways the concept of adulthood has failed us, and the ways those outside forces allow us to fail ourselves. It’s a book that encourages us to look for meaning in moments where we typically don’t — noticing the times we feel ordinary, not just the times we feel ecstatic or upset.
Stauffer’s book isn’t a polemic about The Youth of Today, but rather, a dialogue with young adults as they reflect on their emerging adulthoods, and experts in various fields who help place those reflections in a wider context. The book’s chapters are about things like work, home, perfectionism, spirituality, social media and dating, allowing readers to take what they need. Some chapters worked better for me than others — I don’t know how many times we need to hear about social media and the effects of being bombarded with unattainable perfection, for example. But some sections landed so well I was tempted to chuck the book across the room, which is my usual, albeit childish, reaction when I read something I connect with.
And still, part of me felt embarrassed that this book connected with me at all. I am 32, an age that culture writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud described on Twitter as one where “people who are 50 think you might as well be 22 and people who are 22 think you might as well be 50.” I feel too old to relate to twenty-somethings, but too young to have any real wisdom or knowledge about ... anything. That uncertainty follows me, forever humming in the background. Am I happy? Am I doing this right? In the chapter “Who Answers When You Call,” about loneliness, Stauffer, who is 28, writes: “self sufficiency has been so amplified, we’ve forgotten it’s okay to want others to contribute to our happiness too.” “RUDE!” I wrote in the margin, caught between feeling offended my problems and uncertainties are not that special and comforted I was not the only one who felt like this.
In the months I’ve been working through self help books for this column, I’ve learned the ones that work best for me don’t offer up action items or simple to-dos. They’re ones that illuminate something I’ve felt too uneasy to say. Like Stauffer’s book, they drive away the urge to frame these feelings as problems only I have. Am I happy? Am I doing this right? Maybe not. But maybe none of us are. And maybe that’s OK.
“An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional,” by Rainesford Stauffer, Harper Perennial, $16.99.
Christina Tucker lives in Philadelphia and writes for Autostraddle, Elle, Vogue, Teen Vogue, and NBC’s News’ Think.com. She podcasts as a fourth chair on NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour.”