I’ll be the first to admit that it took me a couple years to leave my college life behind. When I graduated, I moved from one party town to another. Then I went to the Caribbean to party in a different climate, then I moved back in with my parents because I didn’t know what else to do. Even though I hadn’t been in college for awhile, and I had done some pretty interesting things in the meantime, I still went to those typical college parties at that typical blacked-out windowed apartment, with the same DJ in the living room, and the same kid offering me lines in the bathroom. I just couldn’t leave the scene behind.
It was at one of these parties that I first heard someone yell “YOLO!” right before they did something stupid. It was a kid who people called “The Vacuum” behind his back. His signature move was arranging three heaping lines of cocaine into a smiley face and making it disappear in one fell snort. Watching him do it never got old — it was pretty impressive, always funny, and a little sad. Because “you only live once” — there’s no better excuse than that.
Even when deviated septums became normal, and downers were the only clear fixes for uppers, and the people at these “college parties” weren’t really in college anymore because of their prescription pill addictions, stints in rehab, extended jail sentences, or all three — we were all still claiming: “YOLO, right?”
For awhile, it was just really hard for me to say no. Some people might categorize that under a different acronym: FOMO, the fear of missing out. Luckily, this problem never turned into a “problem” and I was always the one on the outside, getting into some pretty sticky situations of my own, but only playing the observing role in the real life-ruining ones that were happening around me. I always knew that these party “friends” weren’t my people — but I considered them people to be around until my real people showed up. So I passed the weekends, which bled into weekdays, which bled into years, hanging out with them — even though we never seemed to have anything to talk about until there was a line trickling down our throat and a cool song on the sound system.
Whenever I met innocent-seeming people, who didn’t know how to buy a bag of weed, and who thought heroin was just a drug people took in movies, I thought: They haven’t lived as much as me.
I realize now that those were some really shallow years.
When I was spending a week’s worth of pay on a ticket to a music festival, jumping in a car with a guy I only knew about but didn’t really know, and waking up in a random tent in Vermont with only a slight and painful idea of where I had been for the past 72 hours, I was calling it all “living my life to the fullest.” But there were a lot of things I wasn’t doing.
Like I wasn’t speaking to my sister.
I wasn’t visiting my childhood best friend who had to spend a year in the hospital.
I wasn’t traveling.
I wasn’t calling my grandparents.
And I certainly wasn’t writing.
Because I was YOLOing, you guys! And YOLO was everywhere — neon pink t-shirts, hashtags, bumper stickers, song lyrics, graffiti — American youth culture had claimed it as our big excuse, our crutch to lean on so we could all stoop a little lower. And it still is. It’s the question at the end of every confession: So you blacked out and stole a bottle of liquor from a bar, made out with your friend’s boyfriend and woke up with your cab driver? YOLO though, right?
Yes, YOLO is right. We do only live once — so maybe we should halt our shitty behavior and start sewing coats for Detroit’s homeless population like this girl.
What’s interesting is that if we took YOLO away from American party culture and gave it to people who really deserved it — like the woman whose one wish for her 105th birthday was to ride on a Harley, or this 13-year-old girl from India who became the youngest person to climb Mount Everest — YOLO would really be a beautiful phrase.
Because it’s true, we only get one shot at a meaningful life. So maybe it’s time we hung up the ol’ vacuum hose and traded those couple grams of molly for a plane ticket and a notebook, or a shift at the soup kitchen and a job at the assisted senior living center. I think we’ve all become a little too accustomed to sucking down jello shots, dressing up in an ugly sweater, and hula hooping to Girl Talk like it is the single, driving force behind our life’s work.
It isn’t. We’re living in a world where girls look up to Hannah Horvath and don’t know who Malala Yousafzai is, where all it takes to be “edgy” is two sleeves of tattoos and a social smoking addiction. And that ain’t something to be proud of.
So I have some words for my millennial generation. The next time you’re rolling up a 10-dollar bill because you believe that it’s somehow less dirty than a single, the next time you travel to a different country just to get wasted in a hostel, the next time you tattoo yet another song lyric on that dainty little foot of yours, remember this: You aren’t cool.
But you could be. Vandana Shiva, the Dalai Lama, Zach de la Rocha, Beyoncé — they’re cool. Speaking up when you come across something that just isn’t right, creating a solution for a problem in your community, finding your passion and actually doing it instead of just yammering on about it — that’s the stuff of a truly meaningful, one life.
Let’s all band together and make a 2015 New Year’s resolution. Let’s agree to hold off on yelling YOLO again until we’ve finished our first novel, finally made it to India, and/or gotten marriage equality passed in our home state. Let’s take it to the next level. Let’s make some changes and fight in some significant battles. Let’s follow in the footsteps of the supreme youth cultures that came before us. We can redefine our generation as a culture to be reckoned with, instead of the easily-distracted, high on MDMA and hooked on Twitter one, that didn’t even show up to vote this year.
This one life we have is a gift, let’s stop treating it like an excuse to black out.