“Everything I did before the age of twenty-five should be wiped off my personal record.” I say this now, not to void a criminal record, because I didn’t have one. When I say this, I’m not taking about legal constructs. I’m talking about the social contracts we all have with one another. The state will expunge our criminal record, depending on the charges, after we turn 19. My proposition is that as we go about forming impressions of one another we should have a young and stupid clause that states, “Anything and everything we do before the age of 26 is officially off the record. We will not think any less of you, based on what you did before that age, because you were young and stupid at the time.”
We can laugh at one another. We can picture their mini-mes making character-defining decisions, and we can “I just can’t picture you doing that!” one another with some judgment. When the laughter dies, however, I propose that we forget it all under the “but you were young and stupid” umbrella. We were all young and stupid once, and most of us became old and wise as a result.
We naturally excuse any actions that occur before 18, because that’s when most of us were truly young and truly stupid, but neurologists say, “brain development likely persists until at least the mid-20s – possibly until the 30s.” Based on that news, I say we personally extend that agreed upon consideration we have for one another to all actions that occur before age 26.
I still cringe when I think about how incredibly stupid I was. I’m no award winning intellect now, but I’ve come a long, long way since my 25th birthday. I managed to disprove the state’s idea that a 16-year-old is responsible enough to be behind the wheel, and every weekend thereafter, I proved that a 21-year-old is not old enough, or mature enough to handle alcohol. Thanks to the statements neurologists make on this subject, I cringe a lot less now, and I feel less shame for the things I did before 26, under the umbrella that my brain was far less developed and mature than I thought it was.
Age is a relative concept, as females generally mature quicker than males, and some males mature quicker than others do. When I look back now, I tend to think I’m looking back at another person, and in many ways I am. I am almost completely different than I was then. If 180 degrees is completely different, I might be 170 degrees different.
When the Mental Health Daily (MHD) website cites the statement from a group of neurologists, it lists a number inhibitors that might further delay to brain development until “possibly the 30s” including alcohol abuse, chronic stress, poor diet, relationship troubles, social isolation, and sleep problems. The 25-30 me might raise my hand to all of those, as I don’t think I explored the advantages of maturity until I approached my 29th birthday. One other inhibitor they don’t add, but I do, is parental stress. Some of us had parents who mercilessly pounded maturity, responsibility, and overall development into our heads, and we naturally spent our teens and twenties spent rebelling against those edicts.
I still don’t know what I was rebelling against when my dad wasn’t around, but my beacon revolved around the line, “What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” from the movie The Wild One and the George Costanza line, “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.”
“The prefrontal cortex doesn’t have nearly the functional capacity at age 18 as it does at 25,” the MHD website adds, and the writer of the article includes, “Adults over the age of 25 tend to feel less sensitive to the influence of peer pressure and have a much easier time handling it.”
I try to convince myself that I wasn’t as susceptible to peer pressure as I was. My thoughts go to a form of confirmation bias in that I focus on those moments in my youth when I faced down peer pressure, and I conveniently forget those moments when pleasing my peers motivated me to do some pretty stupid things. I also infuse my current ideas on peer pressure with those of my youth. “There’s no way I did that,” I tell myself, when I know I did. I know I was young and stupid.
Those of us who are lucky enough to achieve a certain age, who have achieved a certain level of reflective, introspection go through some of the stages of disbelief. These stages are relative, of course, as we all go through these stages in different ways and different times. We were young and stupid, then we spent some years in denial. This stage might be vital to the ego, the self-esteem, and what have you, but if we’re lucky enough to live long enough and brave enough to admit our failures, we should eventually acknowledge that we were as stupid, and as vulnerable to suggestion as everyone else.
Another clause we should all add to any story we hear from responsible and mature adults telling stories about their youth is a “What doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger” clause. You’re here telling this story, you should be grateful. If you’re religious, you should thank God. If not, think about the circumstances you survived, and think about how easily they could’ve gone the other way. When we hear about young kids doing stupid things that cost them their lives, we shouldn’t dismiss them solely on the basis that they were stupid. Dismissing someone as stupid allows the purveyor of that proclamation a pass on everything they did in their youth, without accounting for all the incredibly stupid things they did, and they just happened to survive. We should consider ourselves lucky that we didn’t suffer a similar fate.
I know this is going to be an unpopular statement, but a part of what kept me from ruining my faculties to an exclamation point were the state and local laws. I was not scared of police, but I was scared of what they might do to me if I did something to deserve it. If a judge asked me if I had a problem with alcohol, I would’ve said no, and I would’ve believed it. If the judge asked me if my family had a history with alcohol. I would’ve said no. Both would’ve been lies, but I would’ve said them out of fear. Why would I lie, under oath, to a judge? Look at me, do you think I’d do well in jail, and I’ve probably added forty pounds in the last twenty-five years.
“Hey, you’ve put on some weight,” a former co-worker once said, after about a decade of separation.
“In the pantheon of greetings,” I joked, “that might’ve been one of the worst I ever heard.”
“No seriously, you look like a man now,” he said. “You used to be so skinny that you looked like a little boy.”
Can you imagine a 21-year-old, 40-lb skinnier me walking past a yard of hooting and hollering inmates? I know, child molesters receive a penalty worse than death in jail, but can you imagine if a grown, legal-aged man with child-like, waifish features walked into cellblock among convicts wrestling to control their daily urges to violate purity? The fear of what could happen if I violated those state and local laws, combined with the fictional depictions of life in prison, kept me in close proximity to the straight and narrow.
I was still so out of control and stupid with non-jailable offenses that I can’t believe I’m writing to you now with something in close proximity to a sound mind. We’ve all witnessed those whose weight is so out of control that the flap that covers their zipper has been pushed back to expose their zipper. That was me, except it wasn’t fat for me. It was testosterone. I had testosterone all but pushing out my pores, and I never sought a proper channel for it. How many young men, 20-25 years-old, have the good sense to channel their energy and testosterone properly? Now, our voting public, and our state and federal representatives are dissolving and diminishing a number of laws that arguably prevent young 20-25 year-olds from ruining whatever remains of their relatively immature brains. The fear of an ultimate authority figure declaring them unfit to walk around with the law-abiding is receding, and they feel freer to pursue whatever they want.
Ultimately, I was the good kid and the good young man in my group who didn’t want to harm anyone but himself. Even in my small cadre of friends, I was the exception. Punching other people who deserved it, and teaching them whatever lesson they could dream up was part of the party for my friends.
Having said all that, I think law enforcement officials will tell you that chasing minor offenses around is a waste of their precious time, but I no longer think there’s some nefarious plot to criminalize certain behaviors to prevent young people from having a good time. I consider most of state and local laws equivalent to a governor on an accelerator to prevent young people from crashing into the walls they erect for themselves. The argument some make is that some laws make no sense anymore, but I would argue that they’re making such a declaration as a fully developed, mature adult, who is no longer as interested in skimming across the tentative line of lawbreaking. Some argue that one law is just as bad as the other, and in some cases they’re worse, so let’s do away with a number of them, or redefine them. That argument is equivalent to suggesting that we should start our grills with white gas, because it has a flashpoint of 25 degrees, and to really get the flame going, we should add some diesel fuel, because it has a flashpoint of 126 degrees.
Some advocates of such laws worry about the children, but that’s an argument for another day. I worry about the 21-25 year-old youngsters who pursue the idea of doing whatever they want, now that they’re old enough.
This article isn’t about one law, because there are now so many of them with which I now have some concerns. This isn’t about a series of laws devoted to one topic, for it were the advocates of the behavior might pop out of the woodwork to to focus on the topic. They would probably declare me a hypocrite for indulging in the very topic for which I now oppose. I’ll say it for them, I am now a full-fledged hypocrite, and I feel fine. I still feel the pull of my anti-law youth all the time, but I know that certain laws help us define borders. If the themes of the parties I attended in my youth continue to this day, there is a lot of talk of laws. There is a lot of talk about the vague language of such laws, and how they can be exploited. We talked a lot about local, state, and federal laws, so we could know how far to push it. We wanted to live just under that line. We also knew that there was a range of violation that most law enforcement officials weren’t going to waste their time processing. Increase the range, and we increased the level of violation.
“Are you going to the bar tonight?”
“Does the pope attend religious services?”
Our definition of being a man involved going out to the bar with the buddies and getting hammered. We didn’t invent this rite of passage. When we were young, we learned of the correlation between being drunk and being manly, don’t spread the word. We were expected to test tolerance levels every week, and we didn’t concern ourselves about failing too much, because we knew there would be a make-up test next weekend, and every weekend thereafter. Our part-time job, if we chose to accept it, and everyone we knew did, was to increase our tolerance level to the point that we might one day be like Sam Nigro in the corner over there.
“Sam can drink a gallon of beer and show no effects,” we whispered to one another, as if he was the warrior Achilles. “I saw him do it over at Pete’s house about a month ago. He drinks MD 20/20 like it’s Kool-Aid.” Sam was our Jabba the Hut. He could just sit on his proverbial pedestal with an aura of invincibility that no one could define, but no one dared challenge. He was also invulnerable to our drunken powers of suggestion, because no matter how many juicy frog drinks he downed, he never had so much as a buzz.
No one got so hammered that a fight broke out at one of my parties. There was no sex that weekend, and no DUIs. We were all very disappointed. The next time I tried to plan a party I received polite non-committals. There was just something about the atmosphere of my apartment, the climate, or something that just didn’t invite a level of insanity to which we grew accustomed.
The older, more responsible citizens of various states see no problem with updating and modernizing archaic laws, because they’ve grown out of various stages. They can live their lives responsibly no matter how many temptations they update, modernize, and legalize, but as a byproduct of that they help pass laws that now allow the 21-25 year-old maniacs with testosterone dripping out of their pores, all the freedom they seek. They do make an exception for driving an automobile while intoxicated. Those are the only laws much stricter than they were when I was young. So, we’re now allowing our 21-25 male demo to indulge beyond their wildest dreams, and when I say dreams I’m talking literally staying up at night imagining at the ceiling that one day (like Jiminy Cricket sang) all of our dreams can come true. We’re talking about a 22 year-olds indulging beyond capacity and having the good sense not to drive home.
Now that I’m boring, old, and unflinchingly hypocritical, I recognize how stupid I was when I was younger, and I hope that you’ll join me in helping me ease the decades long cringe I’ve had regarding all of the incredibly stupid things I did to tarnish my good name. Having said that, I don’t think we should help the 20-25 demographic do dumber things by diminishing and dissolving the laws that might inhibit them. We tell our old people to update and modernize our thinking, and they do, but do these updated laws and modern representatives we’re voting for make the country, our state, and our locale better? Other, older people, who have sowed their wild oats, fear being called old fogies and hypocrites, but I ask them what they would do if these new laws were passed when they were young, destructive, and self-destructive? It’s tough to remember the mindset, but if any sort of anatomical, or financial, destruction entered my mind, it wasn’t even a tertiary concern. I always thought I knew what I was doing, but now that I’m old and un-apologetically hypocritical, I now know I didn’t. I’ve now gone full circle in acknowledging that I was young and stupid.