#110: The trick of the epiphany
On aging, adjustment, and delusion
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The trick of the epiphany
When I was 22, my long-term boyfriend and I broke up for two weeks. We’d fallen in love during my senior year of college, after which I’d moved from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco and he’d stayed to finish school. Then between our long phone calls and weekend trips, I’d started to wonder if we’d made a mistake. And one visit when he seemed especially young and different from me, I decided to end it. I remember almost nothing about the actual breakup—only that I stood in the bay window of my apartment on Haight Street crying hysterically as I watched him pull away. We didn’t speak for one miserable week, and then eventually we got on the phone and talked until everything felt different for both of us. When I drove three hours to his apartment shortly after, he kissed me against my Honda Civic before I even stepped inside.
A few months later we were at lunch with his dad, explaining our minor detour. I said something about how we’d needed it in order to get closer—that we’d realized so much in that short time apart. And what his dad said in response stuck with me for a long time: “Sometimes you can realize a lot in a moment.” At first I held onto his words because I believed them, and then, later, because I started to doubt them. Four years after that lunch, my ex and I broke up for good, citing many of the same reasons as the first time.
I’ve historically placed a lot of faith in epiphanies, and spent time waiting for them: the answers to what I should do, where I should live, whom I should spend time with. I probably picked this up from listening to people narrate their own lives—as if punctuated by sparks of clarity that boosted them forward—but I suspect it’s not really like that for most of us. The arc of my adulthood tells a much more plodding, circuitous, and repetitive story. Against my every romantic notion, rarely if ever has my life changed drastically from a single realization, no matter how powerful it felt at the time. Almost everything I’ve done that’s made a difference was part of an opaque, drawn-out process, especially in hindsight. Fittingly, that very fact has taken a while to sink in.
Last week when I turned 33, I was talking with a friend about how my 30s have so far been a lot more confusing and dynamic than cultural scripts indicated they would be. There’s a pervasive idea, at least among my peers, that this time should bring about a sense of calm and self-acceptance. We may have dispensed with the precepts surrounding marriage and kids, but there remains a non-specific expectation of “settling in.” Into yourself, into what you want. I took great comfort in this idea when I was in my 20s. I couldn’t wait to know who I was and what I wanted. But the answers haven’t come in the form I expected, and when they have they’ve almost always raised new questions.
It seems obvious to me now that self-knowledge isn’t a journey toward a singular state. That life is just a series of settlings and unsettlings on repeat. In that light, I suspect many proclamations of 30-something groundedness are just temporary epiphanies of people enjoying a nice stretch and mistaking it for permanent. Or maybe they just sound more sweeping than they were ever meant to. It would be ridiculous, anyway, to have figured so much out at 35. What are you going to do for the next 50 years? Settle deeper and deeper until you’re dead in the ground? It sounds much more interesting to keep being surprised by who you are and what you want.
I’m not arguing that experience doesn’t bring about wisdom, only that wisdom is an endless pursuit, changing as we change, revealing new things all the time. I think epiphanies appeal because they deliver us temporarily from this humbling, cyclical process. It sounds nice to realize a lot in a moment, to feel like everything’s going to change now, or is finally settled. It feels even better. Some motivational speakers and self-help personalities have made a lot of money off of our obsessions with feeling that way. But as my own life unfolds, I’ve become less invested in the promises of lightbulb moments and more interested in paying attention to patterns over time.
I’ve written about the hedonic treadmill a lot (here, here), but our capacity to return to our basic temperaments over and over continues to surprise me. The very idea seems to stand in opposition to how most of us operate, which is to assume that we’re a few good or bad decisions away from being happy or miserable forever. In reality we infinitely adapt. To dreams coming true, to epiphanies, to bad news. When my young cat Bug got a terminal diagnosis last year and I learned I’d have to force medicine on him three times a day until he collapsed without warning or became too miserable to keep living, I couldn’t imagine getting used to such a thing. But these days giving him medicine feels like brushing my teeth, and I’ve even accepted his death. I didn’t exactly consciously achieve that; it happened naturally, a fact I find comforting.
Obviously this can work to more nefarious ends. The other day I was reading a piece in The Times about the crumbling state of America this summer, and after listing various crises like covid, monkeypox, gun violence, climate disasters, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the writer closed with “some words of encouragement,” citing hedonic adaptation. “Humans are resilient,” they wrote, “‘...research shows that humans have a remarkable ability to get used to or get accustomed to changes in our lives.’” It seemed like a conclusion in poor taste, but not a surprising one to read in The Times, a paper that heavily emphasizes individual tricks and trips versus systemic solutions (i.e. cope culture). There are obviously better ways out of our current situation than simply getting used to it.
And yet they’re right. The adjustments will happen regardless. Despite constant calls on Twitter to “not normalize” the despicable state of things, I’m not sure that’s in our control. Humans adapt instinctually. Every swell of emotion precipitated by a new horror will inevitably dull, no matter how hard we try to hold onto it. If there’s any hope in that, I think it could be found in considering whether singular epiphanies tend to change our own lives, or whether they merely inform a broader pattern that leads us to greater convictions in the long-run. You can get used to destructive situations and still leave them—sometimes the adaptation itself becomes a catalyst for change. (As in: How did I get used to this?) Adjustment is just a survival tactic in the meantime.
If I do feel any more “settled” these days, it’s not because I feel wholly at peace with myself. It’s only that, after taking enough turns, I’ve accepted that clarity builds, that I don’t need to live in constant fear of missing the signs. Convictions emerge, and we get a bunch of chances to spot them and respond. In that sense, being older still feels like being lost, but in a new place, and with less paranoia that that’s wrong, which changes my understanding of the state entirely. I imagine that’s pretty much the deal. A pattern of order and disruption in the general direction of acceptance. Or truth, if we’re lucky. Of course, I might be wrong about all of this, but wouldn’t that kind of prove my point?
My favorite article I read last week was “My Dad and Kurt Kobain,” by Hua Hsu for The New Yorker, one of my favorite essays in recent memory (I surprise-cried). Last week’s 15 things also included a historical intelligence test, the ideal party game, my favorite new life hack, and more. Friday’s Rec of the Week was outdoorsy activities that are close to (but outside of) New York City.
In Tuesday’s podcast I’ll be digging into more detail re: how my 30s have been more confusing and dynamic than cultural scripts indicated they would be. Then I’ll see you next Sunday for Dear Baby!
Thanks for reading and hope you have a nice day,