Age is a funny thing. It depresses and restricts us. Every passing birthday is one more kick in the shins. Yet it doesn’t actually exist. You don’t walk out of your door and see age lying by the pavement or displayed in a shop window. It isn’t an unavoidable physical reality. We made it up, a narcissistic extension of time. And with enough collective effort we could think the whole thing away.
Has counting down the years towards death ever done you any good? Birthdays past the age of 22 are morose at heart, marking the slow plod away from your virile youth. Perhaps this is why they are celebrated, the toothy smiles and chocolate cake an attempt to mask what is actually a depressing event.
Age has none of the convenience of date or time. These allow you to record history, set things in order and make plans for the future. Nobody will ever say, I’ll meet you for a coffee when I’m 46. Aside from the fact you are every age for a whole year, there is no reference point. You’d have to find out their birth date, and work backwards in terms of date and time.
Age is also a relentless bracketer, penning us in to different life patterns at different times. As a teenager, you should be drunk; in your early 20s, recovering from the hangover whilst tackling the stinging realities of work and rent. In your mid 20s, you should be climbing ladders, property, and career, and by the end of your 20s, you better be thinking about children, or it may be too late, as everyone else will already have had them.
Your physical condition or what you may actually want to do never comes into it. Age gilds expectation with a certain faux empiricism. “I don’t want to settle down, but I am 40, so I probably should.” As if the mere mention of a number means we’ve strayed into science. As if the meaning of an age is fixed, forever.
Yet we fall for it. And a terrible herd mentality ensues. A series of restrictive, capitalized shoulds, defining each passing era of your life.
It isn’t surprising. We are comparative beings, always searching for external verification of what we are doing, often likely to follow a crowd as how could so many people be wrong? Most unhealthily, I find myself searching for the ages of those I deem successful, guilt preying on me until I find out that my idols are older than me. That I still have time to accomplish what they have. Well, most of the time anyway.
Yet this is silly. Comparing yourself to others is always damaging. There will always be someone more talented, with a set of circumstances more favorable. Even then, it should be your standard of happiness than matters, not somebody else’s. But age only catalyzes such comparison, all this talk of a person’s contemporaries and their peers, all of us in a lifelong race to get ahead.
And what of the old, who have counted down so many years in this way? The psychological effects must be terrible. Our bodies are incredibly reactive to worry, anxiety, and guilt. The strangest of physical symptoms can result not from disease or illness but emotion. So imagine the ninety year old on her birthday. Everyone congratulating her on making it this far, how well she’s done. This will only make her feel older. Make her feel that any spirit she has left must be a mistake, or about to run out. Reinforcing the physical instability that age brings. Because at 90, it is your duty to sit down, watch television and wait for death, no? I am young and death still wanders my mind often. In a person of 90, surely it plagues them.
If you were this age, you’d much rather not know it. We’d all be healthier not knowing, another weight taken from our backs, one less anniversary to mark time slipping away. We don’t treat it as such but your age means very little. Your looks and how you feel are far better indications of your proximity to death. You find haggard 40 year-olds and sprightly men of 70. When looking for a partner, age plays an important factor, but only because it indicates the probable stage of life that they are at, playing, studying, looking to have children. Yet age has a hand in dictating this. Take it away and a lot of people’s desires would change because a series of towering shoulds would be demolished. That terrible pressure to do a certain thing at a certain point. Anyhow, surely asking them what they want instead of projecting their age on the situation would be far easier, wouldn’t it?
Of course, governments should probably keep check, for the doling out of pensions and laws of consent. But there is no need for us to obsess. Just look in the mirror, flick through your thoughts. That’s where you’ll find how old you really are.