Photo Creds: Markus Spiske

As each year passes, every additional year that we experience becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of our entire life. Although birthdays are a cause for celebration, birthdays also serve as conscious reminders that time is indeed passing. These landmarks that populate our year – and largely our lives – should allow us to reflect and take stock of how we are growing, learning, and maturing to be better versions of ourselves.

Panache, pomp, and circumstance generally accompany a 21st birthday. Grand parties and aesthetic photos laced with jubilant faces grace our social media accounts of the famous 21st birthday. However, due to the lockdowns that have been occurring in Melbourne, I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to be able to join in on the bandwagon.

Out of curiosity, I tried to look into the traditions of the 21st birthday. The 21st is symbolic of acquiring independence and maturity. In medieval times, the 21st was the year that boys enter knighthood, going through the formal ceremony of being knighted. In many countries, the legal age of drinking, smoking, as well as entering nightclubs is the age of 21. The Australian drinking age used to be 21 but was moved to 18 around the 1970s. As such, the ability to partake in these adult activities legally symbolises the rite of passage into adulthood.

Though having turned 21 a few days ago in the context of a lockdown – nothing much has changed the day before turning 21 and the day after. I remain the same person, which is in stark contrast to the whole 21st festivity of being thrusted into adulthood as it were. In reality, transitioning from the teenage years into adulthood is a gradual process. Day by day, one grows to be more independent to make one’s decisions, where independence comes with its responsibilities that must be gradually owned.

Life is sort of like learning to ride a bike. I remember from a young age, trying to ride a bike was relatively easy and fun – you could pedal with little energy, yet feel the flutter of the wind against your face and hair. However, the catch is that I was riding with training wheels. Training wheels are what it is like to be a child. As a child, we are allowed to explore the world without a care in the world, as our parents allowed us to be sheltered from the bad things of this earth. We were prevented from falling and its consequences, much like how training wheels prevented us from being injured.

I used to remember being very confident with training wheels – it was the time of my life. Observing my confidence, my father suggested that I removed one of the wheels. Being quite nervous, I tried. As I leaned on the side with the training wheel it was fine, however as I tried to balance towards the other side, I was veering into dangerous territory as I could fall.

And I did.

Many times.

This is what it is like to enter from childhood towards being a teenager. We slowly expand our circle of independence, in which we too slowly acquire more responsibilities. Eventually, the final training wheel comes off, and we have to learn to balance for ourselves. When learning, mistakes are inevitable as they are an integral part of the process.

We fall and hurt ourselves.

Again and again.

Sometimes we may hurt ourselves to the point of bleeding as we may scrape one knee on some cement or road. When I fell many times, often with stinging pain, I used to question why remove the training wheels in the first place? In retrospect, however, I realised that often when we are in the heat of our circumstances, we do not understand why. Where the ‘why’ of things tends to come a lot later. However, as we try and try again with resilience, eventually we will learn to ride.

The day when I finally learned how to ride without training wheels was a day that was filled with much optimism and hope. The first time riding without training wheels felt liberating, where I finally understood that the training wheels were limiting my capability to cycle. That I finally understood why they had to come off.

The removal of training wheels is like the rite of passage to adulthood. Though we may still fall at times, making horrible mistakes that we wish we could turn back time to mend, it is a very necessary process, because it is only without training wheels can we ride as far as we can. Though growing into maturity is a painful process, it is a process that is entirely worth it in the end. And often, we do not understand the worth of the pain till we observe our past in retrospect.

Turning 21 is an accomplishment deemed by society. However, it is very much just the beginning. It is the beginning of a life – of an opportunity – to go the distance.