For so many years, I was in the habit of colloquially referring to myself as ‘old.’
Much of the time I did not actually mean it, but I said it nonetheless. Often, it was done jokingly, but sometimes I meant it comparatively. I was no longer seventeen, twenty-one, twenty-three…
“But those ages are not old!” others might respond.
To me they were, however. I had structured my outlook around preservation of youth, like many other women before and after me.
When I moved to Orlando, Florida to work for Walt Disney World, I often felt as though I were a toy in a crane machine — that is, lifted by a claw and casually dropped to an entirely new location in a long row of entertainment contraptions.
During this unusual time, I met some of the greatest people I will ever know. I was twenty-three, desperate for new experiences, and feeling moderately senior for the college program in which I was enrolled. When I learned that others in the program were also my age, including two of my roommates, I didn’t feel as self-conscious about my timetable and my decision to enroll.
“They’re my age, so I’m not the oldest one here.”
What I was really telling myself was my decision is admissible.
This is problematic for so many reasons.
For one, we tend to restrict ourselves based on comparisons to others like us at similar ages. Our restrictions vary greatly and are in accordance with that which we value and fear (e.g. travel versus never making a difference in the world). I recall one time attending a state fair with a friend of mine a few years older. In my brain, I felt so lucky that I was only twenty-one; she was twenty-four, and twenty-four seemed awfully old for rides and cotton candy. I look back now and cringe at my insanity.
In these moments, I was quite aware of the competition I had established in my mind. It didn’t matter; the pattern was too ingrained in my thinking. I would find myself comparing my meager existence to the feats of great thinkers and political figures, scientists and celebrities. “So-and-so didn’t accomplish X until he was age Y, so I have time.”
Although inside I knew I was not truly old — even while in the range of years deemed socially reasonable for blithe endeavors — I focused so heavily on age.
I had no comprehension of what I was doing to myself. I unconsciously decreed that as long as I was of justifiable age I was winning the “contest,” and so long as I won the contest, I was acceptable. Little did I realize that I had inadvertently — and even worse, voluntarily — signed an invisible accord binding my perspective of self to the number of years I had lived and experienced.
This sort of mental framework is particularly harmful because it gives us a faulty timetable and allows us to procrastinate; or conversely, it causes gratuitous worry. Moreover, it can literally curb our worldly endeavors by hindering advantageous choices through fear or unwarranted concern. Not to mention, it is unrealistic to compare one life to an entirely separate life of idiosyncratic and distinct experiences.
(As a disclaimer, it can be healthy to use the timetables of others as a very loose framework, particularly if a person’s career trajectory resembles one’s own aspirations. And naturally, we must temper our immediate desires with delayed gratification and sound preparation.) Still, if I want to move abroad to assist refugees in Europe, why should I hesitate based on a subjective number? If my life allows for it, why not go forth? Too often we tell ourselves we have passed our time when, in fact, our concept of time is actually dependent on us.
Telling myself I was old at twenty-three seems ridiculous to me now, just as telling myself I am old now will seem ridiculous in five or ten years. Why continue this cycle when we can actually appreciate what is before us at our present age? Why should we perpetuate an unhealthy worldview in this single opportunity we have to live?
The lack of worry will benefit us physically. Anxiety causes a myriad of ailments and is known to age us prematurely. Losing the worry may actually keep us young.
After all, the number of years we are alive is entirely arbitrary if we are able to exercise our purpose.