(I gave this speech at my 26th birthday party, just a couple of weeks ago. After watching this video, I have resolved to lose some weight and clean out the couch cushions. Filming credit goes to my friend Morgan.)
I’m 26 now, and I’m scared shitless.
By the time I reached 26 years of age, I had hoped to be better than I am now. I had hoped to at least be dating the woman I would marry; to have found some way of making a living that I didn’t hate; to have discovered some long-hidden passion, some consistent reason for getting out of bed in the morning; to have found some way of taking control of the way that my heart and mind swing wildly between mania and despair, but none of that has happened. Instead, I have a job that values a convincing shit-eating grin over most anything else; I can still sum up my estimation of humanity and the planet that spawned us with a sigh and an ambivalent shrug; I still never really know if I’m going to be too depressed to follow through on plans more than about a day in advance, and I’m alone, with no prospects. I have produced no great work of art; I have participated in no noble revolution, and to top it all off, I’m still definitely a virgin after 26 years, and whatever peace Aaron Weiss sang about finding in my situation eludes me, as I’m horrified at the prospect of even four more, letting fifty quite alone.
At 26, I’ve finally realized that that definitive moment that I was waiting for, all along without ever fully realizing it, when my Life — my Life proper, my Life with a capital L — would begin, when it would be time, at last, for me to become the man that I wanted to be, to have the life that I wanted to have, has already come and gone, and I am shocked and terrified. It’s as if I felt comfortable with all this passing time because it didn’t count yet; the timer had not yet started. Now, I look back, and I see my early twenties already past, and my reaction is: “SHIT! You mean I was already using that time?!” And the realization is horrifying because I am emphatically not the man that I meant to be by now.
The book of baby names from which my mother chose mine claimed that Brendon meant “beacon from the fiery hill,” and somewhere under the surface, though I hope I wasn’t often conceited enough to make it known, that was what I meant to be — a signal of safety from the other side of no-man’s-land — living proof to the whole world that a boy could come out of the wreckage of a failed shotgun marriage and an adolescence spent in silent, unguided turmoil, and grow into a man with hope and peace enough to share; with hands ready to balm and to heal, with a mouth running over with kindness and grace, with arms strong enough to hold and to guard, and with feet that aren’t restless, feet like the roots of an oak, feet to keep me where I can always be found — a man who, above all, was a safe place to run to. At 26, I feel like I should have been that man by now, if I was ever going to be, but the clock has already been counting down for years, and I don’t even look like him.
It seemed almost a modest aspiration; I only wanted to be a good man, but I’m failing. My tongue is a wrecking ball if I let it loose at all, and these days, I just try not to. I never wanted to be a burster of bubbles or a rainer on parades; to unfailingly respond to enthusiasm and passion with caution and wariness, but I find that I can almost never respond in any other way. And I am not blessed as all of you are with the privilege of smiling and shaking my head at me, of thinking that it’s just typical of me, of forgetting my warnings and walking away. I have to go home with myself; I have to go to bed with myself. I feel heavy, and clumsy, and earthbound, and at my worst, I feel like I’m a weight around everyone’s ankles when they would be floating to ecstatic heights; even at my best, I often feel like I’m rooted to the ground, watching longingly as my friends all fly away.
And you all keep getting girlfriends; getting engaged; getting married; you keep getting jobs; moving houses; recording albums; going on tours. And I’m spending all my nights growing old in my bed, and tearing up my photos ‘cause I want to forget.
But it’s not over yet.
The worst of this 26 feeling is the worry that the good old days are over, the days of gold and green and blue, and that whatever lies ahead is all one single, washed-out shade of gray, faded in the setting sun of my youth. But please believe that, whatever I may say, I don’t believe it. I don’t fucking believe it. I swear to God that I don’t believe it.
I don’t believe it because when I remember being eighteen and going to shows at Gallery Row with Jake and Ashley, and the time when Tanner asked me to write a monologue for a Willow song because I was the best writer he knew, and the way that, no matter where I was, I felt so hopelessly out of place, I think that I was an idiot; I was right where I belonged; those were the golden days, and I should have loved them while they were still going by.
I don’t believe it because when I remember being nineteen, lying in the back of my truck with that girl with the husky voice, I think that I was an idiot, that I should have kissed her! I just didn’t know. When I remember growing my beard for the first time because I was too sad about her to care about shaving; when I remember that “mission trip” where I didn’t do anything useful for anyone, including myself, and the relief that I felt at coming back home to Waffle House at 4AM with all my closest friends, I think: I was right where I belonged! Those were the golden days, and I should have loved them before they passed.
I don’t believe it, because when I remember being 21, and getting my hands dirty helping to get Ecclesia up off the ground, learning to relate to people with wives and kids, learning to make room for new people in my heart, learning how to be comfortable praying with others, I think that those were the good old days before everything fell apart, and damn it, I should have loved them before they ran away.
I don’t believe it, because I remember being 23 and falling in love, and everyone who needs to know about that already does. Those were golden days, however they turned out.
I don’t believe it, because I remember all the nights on the front porch here at 301, before Chris and Eric left and got married, when I would drink and smoke with my brothers; when, in the middle of our conversations, I would step back and feel the holiness that dwelt out there, on those bricks, in those chairs, under that awning, behind those rails and useless tiki-torches, and I am glad that I started to notice that glory before it passed away.
I don’t believe that my golden days are over because if I’m being honest (and I am trying to be honest), when I look back on what I call the good old days, I have to admit that I felt the same then as I feel now — I just used other things to justify it. But whether they are the fears that I have now, of having missed my moment or of being the last one to leave, or the fears that I had then, of being alone or awkward or wrong or out of place, it doesn’t change the fact that those really were the golden days. And if there’s anything that I’ve learned in the past three years, it’s that these days — this day, this hour, this moment is the golden moment, and at 26, I am finally old enough to know that I’ve got a choice: I can either wait four more years for my next scheduled age-related emotional breakdown, and refuse to revel in this glory until it’s past and out of reach, and then I can look back and regret that I didn’t love it more while it was here, or I can accept these days, this life, as it comes to me, however it comes to me, and bless it and call it the gold that it is, even if it doesn’t make sense to me now.
But it does make sense to me now, because when I look around this room, I see a group of truly great people who have abided my insufferable, paternal caution and my relentless negativity; who have waited out the storms with me that so often howl in my head; who have found me beaten down, knocked out, and lying in the dirt just waiting to die (which is as effective a metaphor as any for lying in my bed in the dark drinking whiskey from the bottle and listening to The Devil and God), and picked me back up. I feel the love of God in the presence of these honestly amazing people who, for reasons that I have given up on trying to understand, seem to have the same affection and esteem for me that I have for them.
I am cautious, and I am guarded, and I am skeptical, and I admit to being an inveterate cynic, and faith of any kind is the hardest thing in the world for me to hold on to, but with every good thing in me, I swear that I am going to give everything that I’ve got to praising this glory before it passes; to living this life as well as I know how; to loving the people God has given to me as well as I am able, because those people — you people — make it easy for me to imagine how I might look back four, ten, twenty years from now and smile to myself and think, “those were the good old days.”
These days are the good old days; these days are the golden days, and if I have any power over it, I am not going to wait for my gut to get fatter or my back to get hairier or my hair to start going gray before I start believing it. I am going to love this gold before it goes; I am not going to reach thirty and look back with regret on the way that I didn’t embrace the life that I had because it wasn’t the one that I thought that I wanted. And when that darkness falls over me again (as it inevitably will), I am going to do my damnedest to remember that somewhere in it, a Light shines. And when I run out of strength to do it, I thank God that I know that all of you will stick by me, gloomy and stubborn as I am; that when I give up and lie down, I have all of you to pick me back up.
At 26, I am not the man that I had hoped that I would be, but I have better friends than I ever thought to hope for, and for that reason, I believe that these are the good old days; these are the halcyon days; these are the golden days of my youth.
I believe it, even when I don’t. I swear to God: I believe it.