A little under three years ago, I turned thirty years old. As with almost every other milestone I’ve passed in life, I tried to convince myself that nothing about this would significantly affect me; that I wouldn’t go through the rigamarole of agonizing over the reality of aging like “everybody else” had. That I’m here almost three years on writing an essay about it should be fairly indicative of exactly how well that’s played out. I wouldn’t say I’ve agonized over it per se, but I’ve definitely spent a good amount of time thinking about it. That I’m getting older has been something I’ve thought about for at least thirty seconds every day since 2017.
In the lead up to turning thirty, you—or at least those that have turned thirty in the last twenty years or so—start by trawling through the confessions of others online. You find quickly that everybody knows exactly what being a 30-something is all about, but nobody agrees. Responses range from it being some kind of golden age of life down to it being the absolute darkest and never do any of these assessments share the same rationale. Quickly, you decide these myriad articles and posts are useless because, in your (perhaps lessening) youthful folly you dismiss their single universal characteristic: that they are only really relatable to the individual writing them. You’re not going to be able to gauge your own experiences of aging against them until you actually age yourself. Even then your own experience will be a far cry from whatever you’ve read, judged, and dismissed because the process is necessarily selfish from back to front.
Personally I thought I was going to be alright for a little while there. The birthday itself came and went without any pomp. I’m not one for birthday parties. What ended up happening for me was watching Rick and Morty with a bottle of Jameson, getting blackout drunk, and having my husband get annoyed at me for being too pissed to go out on the town for a nice dinner. The next day I nursed my hangover, tryied to eat something from Tesco that vaguely resembled food, and watched Schindler’s List for who-knows-what unholy reason. So far my initial decision that I was just going to treat my thirties much the same as I did my twenties was going spectacularly! However, it didn’t take long for all the various thoughts to start creeping in. Society, friends, family and oneself have contradictory and intersecting expectations of a person for what they’re supposed to do and be at any given arbitrary time, and I’m in no less danger of this just because I’d very much prefer not to be.
For me, and I think many others judging by experiences I’ve read, one of the main ways in which this aging anxiety manifests itself is the very sudden-feeling obligation to think towards the future. Like many others, I found myself noticing the tiny little physical signs that I wasn’t quite as robust as I had been a couple of years prior. I started to seriously consider how my husband and I were going to purchase a home in a property market that was at best competitive and at worst predatory. I started to feel extremely sensitive about the fact I (a) never had really had a career and (b) still had no clue as to what exactly I wanted to do. Least important but perhaps the most omnipresent was the self awareness of my slowy-but-ever growing gut.
See, I had free-wheeled very neatly through the first half of my twenties, briefly abandoning my childhood introvert to party and worship hedonistic chaos. “Live today for we die tomorrow!” was our adorable little collective mantra. This was a time before I’d submit to the indignity of losing fingernails over cancer statistics or learning what variable interest rates were. It was a time where not caring about something was seen as virtuous and not lazy, and where I justifiably felt this draw towards experiencing as many different things as possible and as quickly as possible. I never felt in my twenties as though there was any reason to solidify my personal expectations because to me, that particular well had no bottom. I could reach in and drink as and when I pleased. Life was as endless as you decided it was on any given night. It was great fun, and something I often ponderously—and usually fondly—reminisce about in the moonlight while I try—and often fail—to follow my husband into restful sleep.
Then I got married, agreeing that I would put aside that cozy bit of selfishness for the sake of the needs and feelings of another. Suddenly I found my days interspersed with little bits of worry over questions that were very annoying to the indulgent consumerist ethos of the twenty-five year-old me. What if I my family history didn’t carry over to me and I died much younger than my ancestors? What if my husband or me died? How old is too old to adopt children, and am I missing out if I don’t have children? What’s the best way to acquire our first piece of property?
When these thoughts wheedled their way into my head, it disgusted me! I wasn’t supposed to be worrying about these kind of things…I was Ben! I was Ben who marched with Occupy protestors! I was Ben whose weekends were constrained only by the distance to the nearest party and my pot/beer budget! I was Ben who moved to Denver on $1,100 in a beat-up Ford Ranger with a song in my heart! I’m not supposed to be considering my life on such asinine metrics and property ownership is for suckers! I had spent the last half-decade asserting myself as a fundamentally different and special specimen from the average working Joe only to discover how much I had in common with him because suddenly I wasn’t concerned only with myself. The latter half of my twenties was, emotionally speaking, basically a pitched battle with my own mind trying to talk myself out of deviating from the paradigm of my early twenties, all the while ignoring the fact that none of the conditions that had existed back then applied anymore.
As annoying and intrusive as these little bits of anxiety were, it wasn’t until I had taken a few steps into the lobby of my thirties that I looked around and realised something important: very little had actually changed. Those same worries that plagued me were still present, and the lingering walls-closing-in feeling of not being wherever it was the surrounding and chattering mouths told me I was supposed to be were no less vocal. What was left of the “old me” (whatever that meant) was this latent defiance of a reality that was now surrounding me. However, there was respite in that this same reality that didn’t seem so threatening anymore because in my bumbling way I could ironically justify them as being a bracketed set of reasonable concerns that the next-nearest thirty-something might have. At least now, I didn’t have that same arbitrary “period of youth” to hold up and assert as a core component of my identify. At least I no longer felt as bad about thinking about things that were even then very reasonable to think about in the lead-up to this point. They had been reasonable not because I was older at 25, but rather because I was married and had taken the step of self-sacrifice because I wanted to make another person a core component of my life. His concerns were not couched in any kind of wild youth and were more forward-thinking, and what I was doing when I suppressed their reflections was—in a way—suppressing my love for him. Doubly ironic here is the fact that this same suppression has simultaneously been the suppression of the emotional compulsiveness that I so worshiped when I was younger. By the by, this among other things is part of why I count myself very fortunate to have a husband as patient as mine is.
So how valid are these societal expectations of families, houses, and great stacks of gold? I’d venture to say they are exactly as valid as any given 30-something needs them to be. At some point, we’re going to run into things we don’t have really elegant solutions to and when that happens we have to suck it up and accept that the conventional solutions might be the only ones we have. There is a difference between blindly accepting things like marriage or financial management as a given necessity and engaging with them as they. While they might not be the most ideal or fun things, they are tangible and viable solutions for problems X, Y, and Z.
As for the postmodern struggle with these things as ankle chains around the human “spirit” should be regarded as just that, a postmodern struggle, not one that has always permeated human existence. It hasn’t. It certainly shouldn’t be perceived as somehow more painful or more full of suffering for its facets. It’s not. The idea of “life milestones” itself is a relatively recent sociological phenomenon coming in stride with industrialization and free market political dominance. It wasn’t very long ago at all that the vast majority of humanity toiled sunup to sundown in fields and mines never giving thought to their age except insofar as it meant it might incapacitate and thus starve them. I recall reading an article a few years back about a backpacker who visited a fishing village in some remote part of Myanmar (I think it was) and noticed one of the fishermen mending nets which intrigued the backpacker. He went to the fisherman and asked him about how long on average such a tedious task took him, and the fisherman looked first incredulous and then annoyed. The problem was that this gallivanting traveler came from a highly techno-dependent society in which strict timekeeping was an everyday facet and this fisherman was still living a day-to-day and hand-to-mouth existence with his family. That annoyed look on the fisherman’s face would probably be most easily interpreted as: “it takes as long as it takes, asshole.” The gentleman knew what time was of course, it just wasn’t something that the economic nature of his existence allowed him to consider for purpose. After considering this and the other things, I personally prefer the existential angst to a unilateral agrarian existence where the road to death is for more agonizing and no less assured than it is for the backpacker.
Again, it’s impossible to understanding these scales and temporal expectations outside of our lived experience. As children, we’re growing both physically and mentally so death is beyond consideration. It might be acknowledged, but it’s very unlikely to really become tangible for a child until much later in life. When we’re children, our entire existence rests squarely in immediate emotional and physical concerns in a way that really doesn’t replicate itself further one when the concept of long-term returns and delayed gratification forces us to slow and build up what we have instead of seeking the new. Friendships form and dissolve very quickly. Teenagers have relationships that last a couple of months that send them into volatile depressions once they end because to them, that two months really felt like a huge chunk out of their lives. Much younger kids change their favourite colour sometimes on the daily. It can be said that the end of childhood and the beginning of ones independent adult life is in its way its very own death. When you go to college or university, you tend to abandon most of your old life completely. Going to visit your family during holidays becomes a ceremony of remembrance and respect and isn’t indicative of a desire to actually return to that dependent existence.
To me, there has been this reverse telescoping, a “zoom-out” if you will, that has come with getting older. More of the picture of life comes slowly into focus and extends far out beyond my limited experiences. One unhealthy thing I find myself doing is thinking about my life in fractions and calculating what I can and can’t do based on how much time I have left. This leads to some really stark imaginings of expanding bellies, weakening knees, and future forgotten dreams that I’m still dreaming and haven’t lost just right now. If the end of childhood was indeed this kind of “first death” that I didn’t recognise for what it was until much later, then my thirties—wherever exactly that started—brought with it an imposition of mortal reality that I’d carry for the rest of my life. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it can be as scary as it is motivating to recognise the single inescapable conclusion I keep coming back to whenever I start to think about this kind of thing:
“You will only get older.”