My parents asked me how it feels to be turning 23, if I am happy. I said I felt I was on track to be where I want to be. They said I was in some ways more accomplished than they had been at this age, then they pondered and reminisced what exactly they had been doing at the ripe old age of 23.
1984, Timișoara, Romania. My mom was in one of her final years of computer engineering, struggling with a masters thesis on a burgeoning technology which had already fundamentally changed since she started learning it. She was in over her head, relying on her thesis advisor to really guide her and two other girls through it.
1981, also Timișoara, my dad was cruising through in 3rd year of medical school after having already done his mandatory year in the military and gone to Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders. He found himself tutoring those who failed the entrance exam, being paid under the table by their parents from the profits of Romania’s thriving black market dealings.
Neither were married yet to their first spouses, and they would not meet each other until just less than a decade later, though at one time they lived scarcely 3 blocks away from each other.
It was a different year, but the same time.
Romania, as well as much of the Eastern Bloc, was starting their beginning of end, their decline into impoverishment. Communism was failing the people and basic needs were going scarce.
My dad said his unwavering daily breakfast routine was always a kind of croissant pastry and a nice full fat yogurt, for about a dollar. He loved his dependable and consistent taste. By October of that year, the yogurt wasn’t available anymore. By December, the pastries were gone.
My mom did her mandatory cafeteria kitchen shift during university, and after seeing the grey, sullen meat being made from random bits and ends of god knows which animals, and the pathetic watered down mashed potatoes, she couldn’t eat it anymore and resorted to eating only from packages of Hungarian salami and cookies my grandma sent her from across the border. She ballooned in weight, while being starved of basic nutritional needs.
Some people say that in North America, young people have it very hard these days. I heard it put once so succinctly:
“Young people today work harder at more demanding jobs, to earn less, to be able to afford more expensive homes and cars, all while carrying more debt.”
Something to that doom and gloom effect.
While I can understand from an economic standpoint that this is true, the view from my window, I am fortunate enough to say, is this: if you can somehow manage to moderately afford the expensive, disposable culture of the west, then people like you and I do in fact live in the lap of luxury.
We may complain and worry about the hardship of our economic futures - and with good reason, we have everything to lose and little to gain — but a good majority of us do it while eating good food that we crave, typing away on the latest and greatest fruit that fell from the holy Apple tree, reading about any and all subjects that happens to tickle our fancy on the instantaneous superhighway that is the web, while having a lot of freedom to attempt to pursue whatever dreams or plans we think we desire at this given moment.
Living in a lap of luxury doesn’t have to mean the kind of fame and fortune our society voyeuristic-ly gleans from the cult of celebrity. There is opulence, and then there is comfort. Compared to the early twenties of my parents’ life, just having the things I could want available to society is enough to give me the drive and passion to work towards possessing those things. I am comfortably set up for success by my surroundings, as are many young people living in the Western world.
Maybe I’ll wake up one morning and my metaphorical pastry and yogurt will no longer be available to me.
There could always be a drastic change by which I find myself living far and away outside my means. It happens to people everyday; swathes of the North American population continue to live in poverty and unemployment. But for the time being, the lucky ones of us continue to enjoy a largely worry-free existence built on taking for granted that the system will be there for us when we need it. We do not expect our society and way of life to crumble in less than a decade the way Eastern Europe’s did in the 80's.
I don’t want to think aloud about my good fortune to hold it over those less fortunate - truth is, everyone has both hardships and blessings that come in more forms than material things, no one has it all and no one has nothing; personal happiness is not something you need to quantify or justify to anyone.
Instead, I look at my 23 years — a blithe childhood, a fruitful adolescence, and what is turning into a rewarding adulthood — and am grateful to know people close to me who had much less, to bring it all into perspective. We take for granted the system in the sense that we expect it to continue unfailingly, but we should not take for granted all the things that have come before that allow us to live in our present.
We may have it hard, but I think we also have it easy. I think it’s more meaningful to say we have it more complicated.
At 23, I have completed my university education, I hold a well paying job I like, and I am engaged to someone who loves me more than anything. I type this on a shiny Apple device, while eating delicious take out food. I will go out tonight and drink with friends, come home to a nice apartment, and sleep without worry that tomorrow there may not be anymore yogurt and pastries.
I think next year on my birthday I will ask my parents what they were doing at 24. The reality check that follows is one of the more meaningful gifts I could receive.