Reality Bites, but Turning Forty Might Not

Spoiler alert and caveat: this post contains a moment of awakening that occurs while lying on a yoga mat. While this moment of awakening was actual and true, it does not function as a) a new-age recipe for well being (wine and Netflix work just great for that, in my opinion) or b) a plug about the wonders of yoga. I admit, I did sign up for a thirty-day yoga challenge and I have done twenty of the days so far, but sometimes I just lie on my mat and think thoughts while the skinny blonde lady in the video yogas. This also can be enlightening.


Admitting that Reality Bites is my all-time favorite movie and that Wynona Ryder is my all-time favorite actress ages me considerably, but maybe it’s time to own that. At twenty-three, the movie clip portrayed here resonated with me - deeply. Wynona had failed and she hated failing. She did all the right things and got none of the right feedback. She was defeated. And I knew her defeat. I was like, “Yes Wynona, me, too! I want to be something by this age, too!” Like Wynona, I wanted to be known, or if not known, understood through my creativity or my intelligence. I wanted to be seen through a lens of greatness, even if the view was fuzzy. I wanted acknowledgement of potential. I wanted proof of my worthiness. But, like Wynona, I was twenty-three. And most people at age twenty-three are just … twenty-three.

And I was a particularly lost twenty-three year old. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or to be. In fact, it often didn’t even occur to me that I had options. I sort of went along with whatever opportunities were presented to me. I was creative, but confused. Smart, but stuck. I wasn’t a go-getter who knew what she wanted from an early age. My path through life has been circuitous, and though the path has led me to amazing places, I am often left wondering if the decisions I’ve made have been the right ones.

Now I’m about to turn forty. For the past few years, I’ve had big plans about the big 4-0. By forty, I’d be in the best physical shape of my life. I’d be a published author. I’d be making (lots of!) money from my writing. I would finally stop assuming that people don’t like me as my default mode of communication. I would become a master yogi and cure my back pain. (The list goes on.)

So, in the weeks and months leading up to my birthday, I’ve been feeling a little scared and frustrated. And kind of like a failure.

Then I was lying on my yoga mat and this scene from Reality Bites popped into my head. Ethan Hawke’s voice came through clear as a bell. “The only thing you have to be by the age of twenty-three,” he was saying to a pouting and distraught Wynona, “is yourself.”

Since I’m almost forty and have given myself permission to do such things, I had Ethan Hawke say those lines again, except to me instead.  “The only thing you have to do by age 40,” he said, in a sexy, smoky baritone, “is love yourself.” Since most things that come out of Ethan Hawkes’ mouth in Reality Bites sound especially profound and true, I knew instantly that this was my personal truth of the moment, or of the year, or maybe for the rest of my life.

So, I have started trying out this hard-to-achieve Hawkism: loving myself. As you might have guessed, it’s harder than it sounds. In a single day, it feels like there are dozens of opportunities to do exactly the opposite. There are, for example, the perfect-bikini-body-moms at the pool who make me feel like an alien from the Planet Carb. Then there’s that stack of novels and motivational books next to my bed that I never get around to reading. And of course there’s that time earlier this week when I got an email from a literary magazine I’ve been submitting to for almost twenty years (yes, you read that right). I felt so sure that this time it would be a letter of acceptance. I opened the email right there in the kitchen while I was making dinner. My kids were screaming at each other over a Tonka truck, and I could actually see ants marching across the counter towards their (uneaten) dinners. It was a rejection letter. Another one.

I’ve heard the Buddhist truism that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. But the truth is, all of us really, really want to get there. And we want people to notice when we do. I’m thinking, though, that self-acceptance isn’t about giving up the goals. I’ll probably always want a flat stomach and a finished novel and perfect, yoga-toned arms. But the more important goal, the goal I need to pay the most attention to (or, so Ethan Hawkes says), is trying to be proud of what I’ve already done and who I already am.

I don’t even know what to call this new goal of mine. Self-pride, frankly, feels like a bit of a stretch. I’m thinking maybe grateful acceptance is more accurate. Or maybe even joyful acceptance. Because my hunch is that there is some real joy to be found in loving ourselves, even if it’s just a tiny bit more than we did the day before. 

And maybe, the longer I lean in to joyful acceptance, the more courage my new well-loved self will find to become the me I dreamed of being at twenty-three.