The Progress You Can’t See

Reflecting on turning 26 and a new personal poem.

Five journals next to each other, dated from June 2021 to September 2022.

It’s my birthday, and I have (unwisely?) been thinking about progress.

Despite appearances, I consider myself an ambitious person. Not in a monetary sense, I have no aspiration for wealth. I don’t even think people should be allowed to get rich. But there is quite a lot I’d like to do with my life. There are books I want to write. Plays I’d love to see put to stage. I’d like to help others realise their own creative visions. I hope to teach in some capacity in the future, whether as a career or something on the side. And whilst I used to be certain I’d never marry or have kids, I’ve since warmed to the idea of both.

In this year’s birthday poem, I looked back at the past 12 months and found cause for pride. However, with my vision for the future clearer, it’s easy to recount the past year with a little sorrow, too.

Milestones I hoped to hit were missed. There were opportunities I squandered. And outwardly, my life looks a little too much like how it did last year… and the year before that… and the year before that.

The question is: how do you measure the progress you cannot see?

One benefit to daily journaling is that I can track how my thoughts change over time. I get to look back at the hopelessness I felt last October and contrast it with more hopeful entries penned recently. There’s physical evidence of my ideas evolving. I can see how I’ve re-interpreted different situations and found clarity. I can re-read how I fought harmful misconceptions I had about myself and others.

There’s been quite a lot of despair, too. The state of the world is grim. Fascism is on the rise. Forty-degree heatwaves hit Britain much earlier than climate scientists predicted. The war in Ukraine continues. The cost-of-living crisis is going to wreck the lives of millions and will be fatal for many. I could list paragraphs of this year’s awful events and still barely scratch the surface. Regrettably, I fear I’ve come to love the world a little less.

But in contrast, this year I learnt to love myself a little more.

I can’t help but think back to my 12-year-old self. Friendless and joyless, he spent every lunchtime in the school library. It was his only reprieve from the relentless bullying that followed him from lesson to lesson. The idea that my life could look like how it does right now would bemuse him.

Although I’ve lost a little of the certainty my younger self had in his abilities, I am undeniably much happier about life and more content within myself.

There are not sufficient words I could write to illustrate how fortunate I am to now have such good friends. And despite some of this year’s low points, I’ve had the privilege of celebrating many milestones reached by people I love dearly.

Vulnerability has always been a struggle for me. Whilst I am a very open person, I’ve often turned insecurities and trauma into jokes that I’ve allowed others to pummel me with. But this year, I’ve gotten better at letting people in without resorting to clownery. I’m learning to be kinder to myself, and I’m letting other people show me some kindness, too. And I’ve been very fortunate to receive more compliments this year than I know how to take.

Sometimes, progress isn’t some momentous event you can point to. This year, for me, progress is writing almost every day, even if it’s just a page in my journal. Progress is learning new skills, finding a job I enjoy and getting a clearer idea of what is meaningful to me. Progress is knowing I can look in the mirror a little longer than I used to.


A very personal poem I wrote to celebrate my 26th birthday.

Today, I reach my 26-year breathing streak. Approaching another year closer to my last breath, I recount the past year in search of pride. What do I find? There are the advertisements I wrote, which appeared in the country’s most widely read newspapers. Let us just not name them, nor elaborate on how banal the copy. For a travel magazine, I wrote about amazing destinations across the globe without ever boarding a plane, or even leaving my chair. This was the year I got to say, “I am a copywriter.” Hurrah, I have acquired another label that tastes foul on my tongue and is deafeningly dull to my ears. But I guess it counts as a survival skill in this world of consume, consume, consume. (Not that I’ve found anyone who will pay me to help the world gorge itself to death.) Fortunately, I have made honest coin serving drinks to patrons of the performing arts. Although the pay is little, the reward is great.

Let work not dictate the terms of achievement, however, for the real pride lies in what is given freely without hesitation. I have volunteered my time liberally to others and have only regretted time I squandered whilst alone. This year, I wrote letters to family and friends, and I penned a tale that only I and one other would understand. I witnessed an exchange of vows, the engagement of two I hold dear, stood beside my pals who graduated, celebrated a new boy soon to enter the world, and I danced until every inch of my body ached for days. And this year, I committed my days to the page, memories etched in black ink. Every penstroke carries the hope that there will be more. It was a year where self-affirmation stood equal to self-deprecation. The mirror man and I are not yet friends, but he has mellowed and eased up on his cruelty. And though my chronic singledom persists, I am fortunate to surround myself with loving friends. It is a privilege to be a side character in the extraordinary stories of the most extraordinary of people.

Sixteen-year-old me had set some strict goals for my 26-year-old self. And I had vowed that if I were unsuccessful, I would immigrate to the land of the unliving. If I were to honour my younger self, you would be reading my final words. You can rest assured that you haven’t heard the last from me.

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