I’ve started striking up conversations with strangers like an embarrassing dad. I didn’t realize I was doing it until a friend pointed it out the other day, at which point I knew it was true. There’s the way I’ve started inquiring about servers’ opinions in restaurants, lowering my register as if to say, you can tell me the truth, we get each other. There’s the recent trip to the bodega during which I said, totally unnecessarily, “So many choices, huh?” to a patron who’d joined me near the cheese. There’s the exchange of raised eyebrows I initiated on a recent train for no reason, a conversation between foreheads.
When did I become this person? There was a time when I saw random chit chat as a kind of intellectual failing, or something insecure men sought out for validation, or something only lonely people needed. I used to tout my dislike of it as if it were an admirable personality trait. But over the years, without realizing it, I’ve found chit chat’s charm. It has a way of jolting me awake from my slumber in the matrix.
In other words, I’ve gone the way of most angsty teens and cynical twenty-somethings—a bit soft; a total cliché. And while there was a time when I’d resist such a change — consider it tantamount to giving up — at a certain point, I realized that despite my best efforts, I’d become a cliché in a hundred different ways, and resistance no longer seemed important. Which made me think: Growing up is much cheesier than I imagined it would be. But kind of in a good way?
Consider the car I just bought with my boyfriend. If you could hear the giddy tone we employ while talking about things we plan to do with it — go to the grocery store, run errands, visit friends in another neighborhood — you’d think we were discussing literally anything other than what 95% of America is doing at a given moment. And you might be surprised to know we spent years side-eyeing the suburbs. If you could see the way we look at babies (more mushily by the day), how we complain that we can’t drink the way we used to, or how often we recommit to going to bed early, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish us from anyone 30ish from any era in recent history.
But that’s just one example. This existential eye-roll could be applied to a number of my identities (young woman, writer, daughter, friend, millennial), the details of which are meandering down the distinctly un-silly straw of expectation: Accept your body! Write every day! Call your mom! Save your money! Limit screen time! The beats of my life, emotional and otherwise, are largely not novel — and the extent to which this is true only becomes clearer as I age. Which begs the question: Why don’t I care?
If you asked me to define “growing up,” right now, at the ripe age of 29, I’d say it’s the process of gathering anecdotal evidence for clichés we’ve known since we were kids (e.g. life is about the journey, attitude is everything, the first cut is the deepest — or was that Sheryl Crow?), and only truly believing them once we’ve experienced them ourselves, at which point our findings feel particularly profound and special. And because growth isn’t linear, maturing involves repeating this cycle many times before any of the wisdom sticks, and when it finally does, we realize we’re not so special after all, and by then, we don’t mind so much. Or something like that.
Perhaps there’s a better way to explain this transition. There’s a philosopher and historian named Yuval Noah Harari who, in a book called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, explores the idea that humans have two perceptive selves — an experiencing self and a narrating self. The experiencing self is the part of you that’s present, biting into a piece of chocolate and enjoying the taste on your tongue. The latter is the part of you that’s projecting that moment into a broader story, flagging it as right or wrong, deciding what it says about you, folding it into a memory. Harari posits that this instinct to narrate can blind us, in a way, to what we’re actually experiencing.
If we apply this framework to the messy process of finding ourselves, I’d wager we spend a lot of time narrating who we are in our late teens and into our twenties, making decisions based on who we want to be, how we want to be seen, and how we want to see ourselves. And only later, once we realize identity is something far more personal, do we learn to simply experience ourselves, free from the need to affirm who we are based on external markers.
It’s from this place that chit chatting with strangers or getting tired at parties or whatever would have made young-us roll our eyes, starts to feel honest first and foremost and less importantly cliché. This is when we become the dorky older people dancing in an empty restaurant while the young kids scoff and think, as Heather Havrilesky once put it, that they’ll “never have the bad taste to grow old.” But one day, they will. And by then, they won’t care. Because being a cliché is being human, and embracing it is freedom.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.