It appears that while I’m fairly adept at having existential crises, I am not very good at having them when I’m supposed to. The societally sanctioned ones all seem to have to do with age: there’s the midlife crisis, and there’s the one where you turn 30. I have, in the past month, turned 30, and I have to admit that instead of feeling even the tiniest bit of dread, I have been if anything genuinely impressed with myself for making it this far.
Of course, you can barely even make out that I’m an adult, according to various obsolete but still culturally powerful markers of maturity. I’m not married, I don’t have kids or a house, I can barely even drive a car. (I do, however, now have TSA PreCheck.) Only one thing has happened “on schedule”: I now receive frequent lectures from more than one middle-aged woman about my waning ability to pop out healthy babies.
Despite my dwindling number of viable eggs, a bunch of you are probably thinking oh my god you are still so YOUNG. I agree! It doesn’t make any sense that you’re supposed to start panicking about how you’re now “over the hill” at 30. "It's crazy to think that we still have so much life left," my sister said on our birthday. Both of us are the kind of people who think we’ve got one foot in the grave at all times, partly because I have the hobbies and general outlook on life of a septuagenarian and she has the hobbies and general outlook on life of an octogenarian (at least). To be fair, I think everyone alive has one foot in the grave at all times. Turning 30 kind of loses its sting when the thought of death has hovered in the back of your mind for about as long as you can remember. I maintain that this is not morbid, that I’ve got a healthy grasp on reality, and that actually it’s our culture that’s in denial about all this.
At long last, I have become a person of ambiguous age, the age at which you sometimes vaguely forget how old you are and have to stop and subtract the year you were born from the current year, and maybe do some counting on your fingers. Whereas if you're 22 or 24 or even 26, you are never allowed to forget it. Is anyone really happy in their twenties? I find it hard to believe. All of the desperately saddest moments of my life have happened in my twenties, specifically at the ages when I was supposed to be having the time of my life. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
We project so much onto the young. (Ah, to be able to pontificate on “the young”!) Everyone has strong opinions about what you should do with your life in your twenties, and those opinions invariably have much more to do with their owners’ regrets about their lives than your own specific desires. All the glamorous TV shows are about people your age; you’re the target demographic for everything “aspirational.” I was very susceptible to all of these free-floating visions of twentysomethings living their best lives, partly because I went around crushingly aware that I had no idea how the world worked. I wanted to be a success, because being successful meant security (financial, emotional), which maybe would finally dispel the crippling self-doubt that characterized my existence. Never mind that precisely what “success” entailed remained forever undefined, a vague image whose component parts mattered infinitely less than the fact that it would impress other people. I spent a lot of time back then earnestly making three-year career plans and staying at work late and feeling frustrated and lost because my goals seemed so far out of reach—mostly because I had no idea what I actually wanted and hadn’t quite realized it yet.
Back then, I was utterly concerned with figuring out how I was going to become the shiniest possible version of myself. It seemed of utmost importance that I figure this out as quickly as possible, for reasons that now escape me. Every time I came across a writer who seemed both successful and young, I would do some Google sleuthing until I had figured out how much older they were than me, and then I would think to myself, okay, I have x many years to get to that point. I had been told that any decision I made then would reverberate through the years and eliminate whole branching paths of the possible outcomes of my life. I was like a plane that had just embarked on a journey, and did you know that minute adjustments to a plane's flight path at the beginning of its journey result in destinations miles apart from each other? Ending up in the right place felt like the highest-stakes thing in the world—which is probably why I went around second- and third- and fourth-guessing pretty much everything I did. Everything I came across seemed to offer up a potential path I could go down for the rest of my life. No wonder I felt so paralyzed. I can barely decide what I want for dinner on a good day.
What’s missing from this picture? I didn’t spend very much time at all thinking about what I wanted or simply enjoyed, which was (as it is now) to read old books and write soul-baring, unremunerative newsletters. If I did think about it, it was with despair or self-recrimination. The things I liked to do seemed to have no chance of getting me where I thought I wanted to be—and so I told myself that I simply had to force myself to like the things that did. I loathed Twitter, hated keeping up with the news, spent every day dreading “the hustle,” but I also gamely scrolled through Twitter and read the news and did my best impression of hustling for years because that was what, it seemed, you were supposed to do.
Thankfully, things have become far less complicated. Forget being unformed and "full of potential": it is inexpressibly comforting to know who you are and what you're about. I seem to have entered a phase where I find myself saying no to just about everything I used to say yes to. All those things that were just okay or bearable or seemed like they might confer vague upsides someday are now, in a long view, unnecessary excess. Who can even be bothered? My attitude when it comes to pretty much all of my idiosyncrasies—which used to be a source of guilt and stress—is now a slightly amused shrug: Guess I turned out kind of weird, huh? (This, I suspect, is also my parents' opinion on how I turned out, only they're less amused.) I have become more attuned to what sparks my interest, more able to articulate why I feel sad sometimes and how to lift myself out of it. Babies learn how to self-soothe, and now I have too! I take my preferences more seriously now. I am less fundamentally conflicted and less of a doormat.
I'm clearer, in short, on what being fulfilled specifically feels like to me, and it turns out to be completely unrelated to having a certain title or societal esteem or a really impressive Twitter bio. I used to be more confused about this. Of course I wanted to feel fulfilled—who didn't? Wasn't that the whole point of all this exhausting jockeying? But I could never seem to extricate fulfillment from attaining some sort of exalted position that would establish my legitimacy and right to exist once and for all.
It's crazy how much of this kind of thinking has fallen away in just the past couple of years. Somehow, imperceptibly, the boundaries between inside and outside, between what I think and what everyone else thinks, have become sharp where they used to be kind of smudgy. I am now capable of admiring something without wanting to become it, and other people's success no longer feels to me like a personal attack. If this is what it means to be old, it is amazing.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve suddenly figured everything out and am now gazing serenely down from my own personal fluffy cloud of enlightenment. Every day still kind of feels like a struggle that consists mostly of constant gut checks (I've become an expert at scrutinizing my own navel) and asking myself, therapist-like, “How do you really feel?” But it feels like undeniable progress to simply be more comfortable in my own skin. I contend that growing up is actually a process of becoming more and more specific, and so to me “aging” has been somewhat thrilling. I like the feeling of becoming more myself, of maturing into my own. Slowly but surely I’m approaching my final form, which, like a Pokémon or a Dragon Ball Z villain, will probably incorporate horns and bulging muscles and massive cannons erupting out of my back.
I don’t even think I’m alone in feeling better about myself as I get “old.” It’s just that our culture is overawed by youth, which is, all things considered, kind of a boring value to have. When I was a kid—like, in elementary school—I had this grudge against child prodigies. Clearly part of this stemmed from the fact that I was not a child prodigy, but I also genuinely thought there was something grotesque about children being trotted out like show ponies to flawlessly perform piano concertos for fawning adults. It seemed to me even then that there were more important things to celebrate in people beyond their ability to demonstrate a finely-honed mechanical talent. What about less definable qualities like a sense of humor, or an accurate, undeluded view of the world, or equanimity, or wisdom? What about having regrets or sorrows or a variegated past, which are far more interesting than youth? I didn't think older people were simply better than younger people—heaven knows not everyone improves with age—but simply that age in itself was kind of a meaningless, flattening way to judge someone.
My opinions on all this, in fact, can be summed up in a scene from a book I read as a kid that I still remember with startling clarity. In the scene, an old witch—a gnarled, forgetful old witch, with a cloud of flies for a familiar and the unfortunate habit of transforming into a coffee table whenever she gets flustered—asks to be turned into her 20-year-old self. But when her wish is granted, she looks at herself in a mirror in horror. “I don’t like it,” she says finally. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to turn me back again. All that swollen flesh and those bulgy pink cheeks...And what did I want all that hair for?”
What, indeed. Even at the time, and I couldn’t have been older than 10, I found this refreshing, even profound. Who cared about youthful beauty—which, after all, is external and also extremely subjective—in the face of knowing exactly who you are? And who I am is someone congenitally suspicious of "fun," who hates pretty much everything new, who listens to music at least 50 if not 200 years old. I was, all in all, never very good at being a young person. Thank god I never have to do it again.