This week’s entry is dedicated to a few lovely people –you know who you are– and a conversation we had over dinner here in Bali about a week ago. Aside from speaking of many other topics, growing ‘old’ and playing the part became the focus. You know, things like how reaching our (mid-) thirties and forties often means a qualitative change in how we go about doing life; how there seem to exist certain ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of being a certain age or of growing old in general.
It all started with the remark of a friend who, after a long period of traveling, was heading back home because “well, I’m no longer twenty; I need to be responsible now.” While remarks like this are truly frequent and you can hear them said almost everywhere in the west, they’re anything but universal, and close inspection shows us how easy it is to see through them. Because, though we like to think of ourselves as progressive and open-minded individuals, most of us have very damaging ways of thinking about age and ageing both with regards to others and to ourselves. Which is why, in today’s entry, we deconstruct our views on age and ageing, and beg you to consider: are you really too old for gold?
'The handbook of ageing'
Indeed, for those of us who love to reflect on the nature of our world and get to the heart of the reasons for things being a certain way, remarks like the one above speak more about the pressure to conform than about an actual desire to do so. We’re here speaking, of course, of the pressure to make sensible decisions, commit to a responsible lifestyle, stick to our careers, goals, maybe get married, have children, ‘age adequately,’ buy all sorts of insurance (and then insurance for that insurance!), and live life as a mature and established adult because ‘you’re no longer 20.’ There seems to be some sort of subtle, yet well-known rule whereby, by the end of a person’s 20s, you’re mercilessly dropped into ‘proper adulthood’ –no changes in direction permitted, no last-minute hesitation, no fuckups allowed!
When sticking to the dictates named above is not possible for whatever reason –and, mind you, there are many possible reasons for this–, we are at least expected to accept that our inability to do so means we are not in sync with our age; that we suffer from some form of ‘Peter Pan’ or unrealistic life syndrome and that we are, somehow, maladapted to the natural characteristics of both our society and our age. Needless to say, this sets many a person on a journey of self-loathing that has no end, feeling guilty or at fault for their inability to conform to the given standards or find enjoyment by following the more treaded path.
But what are those ‘natural characteristics,' we wonder? Where is this implicit ‘handbook of ageing’ everybody seems to live by and that’s making so many of us feel as if we were out of tune with the established conventions of our age?
There is, certainly, a biological component to consider. Some things in life are only possible up to a certain age —like having children or engaging in highly intense physical activity. So, yes, some things do have biological deadlines and there isn’t much one can do about them. But when it comes to most other things —things like what we do for a living, who we are, how we feel, what we think, where we live, and what we long for in life— the limits we set for each life stage are purely arbitrary. They're nothing but the result of cultural conventions we have slowly established, and that blindly take for granted, even when playing by their rules can often make us suffer.
The slow cultural programming of the western 'self'
As is the case with our views on physical beauty, race, or class, our views on age and ageing are the result of our evolution as a species, one that out of habit, exposure to difference, and also fashions has determined the un/suitability of certain behaviors at certain life stages. Granted, what these behaviors are is not static and is subject to periodic change. But change does not come about unaided, and if we wish to help it take a more inclusive and flexible direction –one that may better represent the diversity of human experience at all ages– we all need to become better acquainted with the nature of our bias. What does this mean? It means that we need to become more aware of how the way we think and speak about growing old and ageing affects what’s (im)possible for us at different periods of our life.
Let’s begin, for example, by discussing our society’s pathological obsession with youth and ‘youthful ageing’ –a cruel oxymoron of sorts. At the end of the day, we are all the complicit victims of unrealistic expectations towards ageing whereby we are expected (and expect others) to 'age elegantly' or, put differently, to age without a trace. We call this ‘youthful ageing’ in lack of a better term; and while growing old as best as possible is always desirable, the boundaries of what 'as best as possible' means need need some redefinition. Because as things stand, if one must age at all, s/he better do it in the socially accepted ‘proper way.’ Think of George Clooney going for dinner with Sharon Stone –that is the 'accepted standard.' A swift look at any ad displaying ‘mature people’ doing something suffices to subliminally gather that much. Should you be unable or unwilling to age accordingly –and many people are– you’re basically condemned to disappearing into the margins of visibility. Because, let’s face it, wrinkly (and chubby) old people are only socially welcome as accessories in an exhibition when they’re hanging from the wall, as in the black and white pictures taken by a skilled photographer. The high grossing figures of the cosmetic surgery conglomerate worldwide and our use of our beloved Instagram/Snapchat filters are enough proof of this. We are afraid of ageing, and the easiest explanation for it is that we are afraid of being deemed unworthy of love if we do because 'what's there to love in us beyond our looks,' right?
And yet, the discourse of ageing adequately or appropriately has more pervasive and naive forms, forms that find their way into our heads long before ‘getting older’ should even be on our radar. The ironic bit is that we all participate of these more innocent forms, as the phrase mentioned at the beginning of this entry goes to show. This is where invisible but palpable peer-pressure around age and ageing stealthily creeps in. And so, by the time we hit our 30s (not to mention our 40s), things that were cute in our 20s acquire a certain stigma. All of a sudden, job hopping, bartending, being altogether jobless, or not knowing where one’s headed career-wise goes from an ‘adorable rights of passage’ to a ‘you should know better than this by now.’ Whatever slack one might get in his 20s now magically evaporates.
The same happens to being single, and anyone fast approaching his 30 or 40s will be able to confirm how the proximity of this ominous number has the ability to bring many a close friend to the altar in a matter of months! There’s a great deal of implicit pressure for people to find a partner in their 30s, build a family, buy a house, buy a bigger car... Sporadic gatherings with one’s extended family or friends already provide some of life’s best examples when speaking of having to find quick answers to extremely intrusive questions age-wise –questions otherwise deemed 'normal' by the majority many times.
Then comes the pressure to save for old age; to buy insurance, worry about your pension fund, and somehow manage to live up to your parents' expectations... The list of things to watch out for as one gets older only seems to ever grow.
The truth of age/ing
The description given here of the symptoms of our cultural programming when it comes to age and ageing in the West is part of our overall obsession with the notion of security –a concept we at ACEBE already explored a few months ago. Anyway you look at it, our fear of ageing at any life stage boils down to a fear of insecurity: insecurity about the future, about our sustenance, lovability, our ability to matter to others and ourselves; but also, an insecurity with regards our identity faced with the inevitability of death. Because we will all die sooner or later, and it is our inability to fully comprehend death, its meaning, process, and importance, that triggers all kinds of compensatory behavior during this lifetime.
Eventually, the truth of age/ing at any stage of a person’s development is that you’re only ever as old as you feel (and think!) you are. And we’ve said it before at ACEBE: 'as you think, so you become.' Anyone with decent health after their 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s will surely agree with that. All of us know at least one or two people in their 60s or 70s that lead lives that are, to all standards, much ‘younger looking’ than those of some of our friends in their 30s and 40s. This goes to show how age, beyond a biological factor, is also, in essence, a culturally practiced convention and, as such, a matter of perception. For age is a culturally-ingrained habit whereby individuals are divided into neat typologies so that certain (un)desirable behaviors and aspirations may be better (up)rooted in agreement with their age.
But there is no ‘natural rule’ stating that, once you’re 40, your chances of making it big time, whatever your career path, are over, nor any stone-written rule whereby, by the time you’re 50, your ability to change damaging beliefs, patterns, and behaviors is near non-existent. These are all mental barriers, limiting beliefs, and habits we have learnt to think with, that we can as easily learn to think without. In the end, what you choose to go for in life –what you choose to do with your time at any life stage– should come from a place of deep interest, profound love and gratitude, and the desire for change, growth, or exploration, and not from a place of fear, self-inflicted or external pressure, and a fear of judgement at the hands of others.
So, yes, 'we're definitely no longer twenty,' but how cool is that?!