52 Vs 25: Which Is Better?
Aging is full of contradictions
Age is one of those aspects of our being that can be easily measured, in years usually, unless you’re in the single digits phase (aka childhood), in which case your age is either a whole number or a number and a half. For a kindergartener, it’s one thing to be five, and five-and-a-half quite another.
Our obsession with age begins when we’re very young indeed, though why we obsess about it changes over time. Eventually, we reach a point where what we fixate on is our real vs our perceived age.
We increasingly compare ourselves based on how young we look. Young becomes synonymous with attractive. Some of us actually take a perverse delight in discovering people we thought were way older than us are actually our age. The older-than-us they appear, the greater the delight. I’d say that after forty, no compliment is more welcome than, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re [insert age],” and no one is more instantly likable than the gatekeeper who cards us.
You may want to not care. You may want to not compare. And yet you can’t not do it.
“Old age is a wonderful source of ironies if nothing else,” said Maester Aemon in Game of Thrones. It’s true, aging is full of contradictions.
Aging Turns Us into Both Agents and Victims of Ageism
They say you cannot entirely understand sexism if you’re a man, or know what racism feels like if you’re white (in the U.S. at least). Aging is similar. When the wrinkles and sagging make it evident that you’re well past youth, that’s when you truly grasp ageism.
Recently, my sister Sandra mentioned to a group of friends that a certain common acquaintance and her husband had separated. “Well, she still looks young. She has time to find someone,” was what a male friend commented.
“Isn’t that awful?” Sandra, who’s divorced, said to me. “Does that imply I have to look as young as possible for men to notice me and want to date me?” The fact that the comment had come from a guy bothered her even more. But you know what? Women make such remarks all the time as well! Because — please don’t hate me !— they’re valid.
If you’re around my age and get divorced, you had better be mentally prepared to see your ex of more than twenty years dating women much younger than you. I’ve seen it a great deal.
And so, even as we bemoan becoming targets of ageism, we realize that we, too, are ageist. We go to great lengths to appear younger as if looking our age was something to be ashamed of. Some will say it’s a matter of dignity and self-respect. It might just be, a tiny bit.
Me, looking old affects my sense of self-worth and I hate that.
With Aging Comes a Fuller Life
Looks and some abilities may decline as we age yet it’s possible to live more fully when you’re older than in our so-called prime. I for one fit more into each minute at 52 than I did at 25. Could it I’m now constantly aware that time runs out, while I hardly gave it thought 27 years ago?
That’s one factor for sure. A second one is that I now care more about process than outcome. It’s not that I don’t have an agenda or goals, but that they have become — corny as it sounds — secondary to the journey. I write no matter how many people read me. I wouldn’t be on this platform otherwise! I parent my adult sons (it never ends, you know, especially if your child has a significant disability) without fixating on what college they get into or what prestigious job they might have.
Surely, I work to pay the bills, but I’m more intensely invested in making a positive difference in the lives of my students and their families. I run and train for races but the focus is less on time than on what I get out of each run: a space to think, to notice the trees outside, to be grateful for my body.
I don’t know why but aging is disinhibiting, especially if, like me, you tend toward insecurity. So what if my essay submission is rejected with a critical note? So what if I told everyone my target was to complete a 10k in 60 minutes and I did it in 73? So what if I ask and they say no? Even, so what if I get fired for doing the right thing?
Choices Shrink as We Age yet Purpose Expands
At 52, I have fewer choices than in childhood and early adulthood yet my sense of purpose has become clearer and more potent.
At eight years old, I could reasonably dream of becoming, for instance, a professional dancer, mother, rocket scientist, firefighter, or pediatric neurosurgeon. At 25, only motherhood and firefighter would’ve been realistic. At 52, I’d be doomed to fail (and crazy) if I embarked on any of those paths.
As it happens, I did become a mother in my twenties and a special education teacher in my thirties, and I continue (very fortunately) to be both. My sense of purpose, however, doesn’t lie in what I call myself but in cultivating certain attitudes, such as facing my fears, staying curious, doubting my certainties, and doing good. (Again, corny, but there it is!)
A Universal Experience of Aging?
I can only speak for myself when I reflect on my experience (so far) of aging. But studies do suggest that many share my feelings. According to survey data, 88% percent of older adults report having become more comfortable being themselves, while 80% indicate having a strong sense of purpose (Most older adults say they’ve experienced ageism, but majority still hold positive attitudes toward aging, poll finds, referenced in National Poll on Healthy Aging: Everyday Ageism and Health).
“Youth is wasted in the young,” they say. The saying, like aging, is contradictory.
I wonder what my life would be like if I’d had the bit of wisdom I have today back when I was 25. But I couldn’t have. I needed to waste some of my youth to acquire it.
Aging is, of course, ongoing and uneven. Perhaps 18 years from now, when I’m 70, I’ll have discovered more ironies and contradictions. I assume 52 will sound incredibly young to me then, just as 25 does to me right now. And I’ll have acquired a bit more wisdom too.
“Youth is wasted on the younger” would be a more accurate saying, wouldn’t you agree?