I. A Brief History of Forever
Forever is the state, exclusive to those between the ages of 13 and 17, in which one feels both eternally invincible and permanently trapped. When my parents were young, Forever was expressed through promise rings, names carved into trees, and photographs you could hold in your hands. In the years since, Forever has inspired many phrases and ideas popular among adolescents: Best Friends Forever, Together Forever, Forever Young. In more recent years, Forever, with its cousins Always and Infinity, has dominated young adult literature, differentiated the internet from the more fleeting IRL, and, one could argue, explained the popularity of the galaxy print. Nothing lasts forever, of course, but Nothing doesn’t resonate with a teenager the way Forever does, because, for better or worse, it’s hard to imagine ever not feeling this way, being this person, having this life.
I waited my whole life for Forever. I started reading Seventeen at age seven and regarded my camp counselors, babysitters, older sisters, my sisters’ friends, and my dad’s high school students with more reverence and awe than I did any actual grownup. And really, truly? My Forever didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t perfect, but therein lies its perfection: I’ve been lucky to come up in a time when there are enough teen movies that make high school’s terribleness into something interesting at worst and beautiful at best, so even the darkest times were not lonely, but strangely magical. John Hughes said that “one really key element of teendom” is that it “feels as good to feel bad as it does to feel good,” so really, I’ve had a solid run. Forever is not meant to be the best time of someone’s life, but it is certainly the most Forever-y. So I’m not sad because I think post-Forever seems terrible, I’m sad because Forever is remarkably peculiar, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to understand why, and I will miss it.
I’ve often worried that this ambition to understand my own teenage existence has lessened its sincerity, made my experiences too self-aware, but it’s been quite the opposite. Chris Kraus writes in I Love Dick, “The Ramones give ‘Needles & Pins’ the possibility of irony, but the irony doesn’t undercut the song’s emotion, it makes it stronger and more true.” The self-awareness or irony or whatever you want to call it made it easier for me to appreciate the awful parts of Forever because I had the rose tint of nostalgia in real time. It granted me a sense of humor about the most resentful of teachers. I was careful not to hang out in the alley behind school often enough to find it redundant and oppressive. I let myself write bad poetry and diary entries because I knew they’d at least be funny to look back on. Of course, the idea of a time when I’d ever be looking back was nebulous to the point of being unimaginable, because Forever, Always, Infinity, etc.
Technically, I still have quite a bit of Forever left. I won’t be a legal adult until April. According to science, adolescence now lasts till the age of 25. If we use high school as a timeline, I have six months left. But because my friends have already graduated, because I’m in the midst of planning my future, because I feel like I hold more memories of who I have been than an understanding of who I am now, I say with certainty that my own personal Forever is over. And I’m terrified.
II. A Theory of Forever’s Remarkable Peculiarity
Forever is when you have the height and width of a miniature person with the density of an alpha-person. Forever is when you’re a human cartoon with every vein and skin cell as exaggerated as Minnie Mouse’s gloves. Forever is when you experience all kinds of things for the first time, as do your hormones, which will never again be this crazed, never again experience things as either so bleak or so Technicolor. Forever is when your brain is still developing, so everything sticks, like a lot. Forever is when you have tunnel vision because you (I) have not yet understood that you (I) are not the center of the world, so you (I) grant yourself permission to see things as though you (I) are (am). I don’t recommend it as a lifestyle, but there’s something to be said for having this much time to just think about you, what you like, what you believe in, how you feel. When I asked Sofia Coppola why she continually writes movies about teenagers, she said, “It’s a time when you’re just focused on thinking about things, you’re not distracted by your career, family.… I always like characters that are in the midst of a transition and trying to find their place in the world and their identity. That is the most heightened when you’re a teenager, but I definitely like it at the different stages of life.”
III. Different Stages of Life
Like she said, Forever is not the only time a person is transitioning, finding their place in the world, finding their identity. Forever is not the only time in which a person feels things strongly, or for the first time, or in a way that is central to their forming who they are. It’s maybe a crazy concentration of that time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great time. Sometimes the awful parts are beautiful, but sometimes they’re actually just awful.
The good news is that most people’s lives get better after Forever. The bad news is that some people’s lives don’t, or they do, but those people themselves become cold and bitter and nostalgic for Forever, whether or not their own Forever was really worth pining for. Or, as Allison says in The Breakfast Club, “When you grow up, your heart dies.”
One way to avoid killing your heart is to decide that you will spend your whole life growing up. I am not saying you should aspire to the maturity level of the characters in Hot Tub Time Machine; I am suggesting we resist a life that looks, in line-graph form, like it goes up and up and up and then it stops, and then it levels out, and then it stays on that flat plane until death. I hope to live a life that goes up and up and up until the end, with the inevitable dip here and there. I hope to continue to learn and change.
Coveting youth also needs to be dealt with. I’m not afraid of being old; I’m afraid of being afraid of being old, which for some reason appears to be an inherent part of being old, because the examples out there of adults who aren’t trying to turn back time are few and far between. But a fear of aging turns every second into your enemy. It means that your worst nightmare is constantly coming true, unless you choose to die, which is a terrible choice to make. I generally like life—it lets me do things like eat good food, watch good TV, and have good friends—so I’d hate to have a bitter relationship to it, to hide from it, to dread it. I’d rather not romanticize a lack of knowledge. I’d rather be a wizard or a mad scientist or a walking encyclopedia. I’d rather get on with things than spend every day super pissed that we haven’t yet figured out time travel.
Finally, it’s important to take time to mourn Forever. I know this doesn’t have to be so tragic, I know I don’t actually want to stay in this place—but to effectively move on, I have to effectively wrap things up. Because I don’t want to long for Forever in small, unhealthy ways later, I have to honor it in big, creative ways now. Reflecting and archiving is not the same as dwelling in the past. It is not anti-living, but a part of life, even a crucial one. We do this to highlight one thing above others, so that a special moment can take up more space in our brains than an inconsequential one; so that, by plain math, our personal worlds contain more good things and fewer bad ones. Or more interesting things and fewer blah ones, since you have to record the bad, too. Like I said, Forever is not about being the best years of your life, just the most Forever-y.