What once started as a joke to fill the silence became a point of serious complexity.
“How old are you today?”
I don’t know how my partner came up with this question or what he meant when he first asked it, but it became a running joke between us.
Depending on how I’d slept the night before or how much my lower back ached, my answer would range anywhere from 45 to 85.
But after being asked this question a few times, my answers took on different forms depending on my mental state, and I began to think of the question even when my partner didn’t ask me.
If I felt unheard in a conversation at one of my volunteer organizations, I’d say I was in my early 30s to get a little more respect. If I were comparing myself to my peers in whatever success I’d had as a young adult, I’d boast, “… and I’m only in my early 20s.” And on those rough days, when I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, when I wanted to unplug from the grid and move to a little farmhouse in an open field, I was a grizzled, chain-smoking 65-year-old.
On the other hand, I know people who are my age on their I.D.s but are probably closer to 15 in reality. Eighty years ago, they would have been storming the beaches of Normandy. Today, they’re content to trade baseball cards.
Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Senior recently dove into an article in The Atlantic explaining why people feel 20 percent younger than their actual age. But what if you feel older?
If you’re my age, staring down the barrel of five figures of student loan debt, working 60 hours a week, with soaring interest rates, an unfathomable housing market and a recession lurking around the corner … how could you feel any less than my age, if not more? I don’t know that I’ll ever feel 25. I don’t know that I ever did. I think I’ll be 45, 65 … or 85, forever.
If you’re older and you feel younger, is this escapism? If you’re younger but feel older, is this an acknowledgment of everything you’ve done and everywhere you’ve been? A decade ago, most Americans looked forward to retirement. Today, retirement is a figment of the imagination. If I were to say I want to feel young, what does that mean? I’m young right now, and my position is bleak. When I was a child, I couldn’t wait to grow up. Now I’m barely grown up … but would I go back? Perhaps the age we feel is a reflection of our own mortality and morality.
G. Michael Hopf once wrote, “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times.” Conversely, “Good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
Hard times don’t just create strong men. They create mature men who are able to base their decisions on a wealth of experience. But what, then, determines maturity? My 401k? Or the things that I’ve seen and experienced?
And does maturity imply morality? Hard times create strong men who storm beaches, but are they capable of making rational decisions when they return? Yet, not everyone needs to be drafted into an international conflict to be a strong man. Sometimes, the hardships one faces at home cultivate maturity, and most importantly, morality.
I think, then, that maturity, age and morality are all related but not inherently the same. The age we feel, therefore, is not a reflection of what we’ve done but what we hope to be. For 75-year-olds who feel 45, there is an element of yearning for what may have been the prime of one’s life. For 25-year-olds who feel 65, there’s a yearning to be way the hell away from the rut we’re stuck in right now.
One can be mature and immoral, and one can be moral but immature. What compels us to feel a certain age, then, is our own mortality. In good times and in hard times, we always look to better times for comfort — that’s our human nature. Whether we look behind or ahead, we look for something that makes us feel better. And the wider the gap between the age on our I.D. and the number in our head, perhaps the greater the tumult within ourselves.
I hope that someday, when my partner asks, “How old are you today?” I can finally feel the number on my I.D., no matter what it is. Because that will mean that I’m finally there — I’m finally at better times.
Katie Z is a young spirit/old soul hailing from Baring Cross who currently is enrolled in the UA’s Clinton School of Public Service.