Today is my birthday. That fact triggers no negative emotion whatsoever. I don’t feel as old as the calendar tells me I am.
That’s one thing I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older: I don’t feel the age I’m supposed to be. At least not right away. If someone asks me how old I am, “25” is the first number that appears in my brain before my conscious mind has the opportunity to override it. When I actually was 25, the number was 18.
Aging—or, rather, feeling one’s age—seems to happen in fits and starts, not in an unwavering, mechanical progression from year to year. One day, I’ll wake up and feel 36 or 41 or whatever age I happen to be at the time as the cumulative effects of moving to the next stage of life will have caught up with me at last. I’ll think to myself, “Well, I guess I’m not 25 anymore,” and then I’ll feel that age for a few more years until sliding into the next phase. For now, I feel 25.
I think I’ve picked up a few other lessons during my three decades of sentience. And, even though absolutely no one asked, here they are:
1. There’s no good reason not to be as kind as you can to everyone, but especially to children, old people, and animals.
Self-explanatory. Be nice to children because they’re only just learning, and also because unnecessarily harsh words will turn them into harsh adults. Be nice to old people because they’ve earned it, and, one day, you’ll be old. Be nice to animals because they’re God’s creatures, too, and, in the case of pets, they trust you implicitly and without limitation.
2. Errors of omission are as bad as errors of commission.
Myriad authority figures drummed into my head from an early age that making “bad decisions” in life would lead to unhappy outcomes. This is true, of course. I’ve never used drugs. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never stolen anything. I’m an honest person. My teachers usually liked me a lot. I never got in trouble with my parents growing up.
Yet, there’s a key point that I missed in the lesson. Namely, that life isn’t just about avoiding the bad things, it’s about identifying and pursuing the good things—even when you might get hurt along the way. I was the unwitting proponent of a “play it safe” mentality that cost me dearly. I often did things by default because I apparently believed that, as long as I didn’t “screw up,” then everything would all work out on its own.
This isn’t true. You have to make things work.
Thankfully, I’ve come to understand this. I never would have focused this much energy on writing a blog had I not.
But, were I to give any advice to younger people, it would be that they should only be afraid of things that are actually worthy of fear. Failure isn’t one of those things. For example, asking out a girl you’re in love with carries little actual “risk.” Rejection may sting a little when you’re a teenager, but, trust me, you’ll get over it. Never pulling the trigger and wondering for years what might have happened if you had—that turns out to be far worse.
There’s no reason to be afraid. You will always regret more the things you didn’t do and wish you had than the things you did do and wish you hadn’t.
3. I’m not the person I thought I would be at this age.
If someone had asked me when I was a senior in high school where I would be in a decade, I would have wagered heavily that I would be married with at least one child and several years into a rewarding career (although, even then, I wouldn’t have been able to pin down exactly what that career would be).
Life didn’t work out that way. I flew past that imaginary deadline a few years ago.
The truth is that we sometimes don’t hit milestones on schedule. Sometimes we don’t hit them at all. We talk ourselves into softening on goals that seemed make-or-break years earlier. It goes without saying that we do this for the sake of maintaining basic sanity, but also because we come to realize that broader goals might be more important than some of the very specific, tangible ones.
4. I’m “old” in the way that might matter most.
By almost any measure, I am still young. That wouldn’t be the case if I were a model or a gymnast, but, by normal human standards, I’ve got a modicum of youth left.
I’m thankfully still at that age where I absolutely believe that, while not be in the best shape of my life, I could get back to that level with three or four months of proper diet and exercise. As long as that hypothetical athlete still lies buried beneath pizza-induced layers of superfluous padding, I can still feel “young.”
Executing this particular bit of slight-of-hand is easier for men (who care less about things like crow’s feet) and easier still for someone like me who used to be an offensive lineman. I’ve been fat for most of my life, so staying within ten pounds either way of my high school weight hasn’t been an issue for me like it has for many of my classmates. By the same token, I haven’t “lost a step,” because I was already modest in the areas of speed, quickness, and jumping.
This is the benefit of having being an unspectacular athlete: The upkeep on mediocrity is much more manageable than that of excellence.
Having said all that, there is one very critical way in which I am definitively, undeniably old.
Namely, I am no longer part of the demographic that drives culture. True, I’m still a member of the demographic most coveted by advertisers, and most of the people who actually create the most influential art (music aside) are my age or older. However, my window of opportunity on being a trend-setter has closed.
And that isn’t even the real crux of this. I never had the personality to be on the cutting edge of culture, or to identify a forthcoming fad and ride the wave of its popularity. Even when I was a teenager or in college, I was far too utilitarian and indifferent to peer pressure ever to fall into that category.
No, the heart of the matter isn’t that I’m not a trend-setter anymore (I never was), it’s that the people who are in that demo look at someone my age and don’t think anything other than “old.” There’s a definitive line drawn between the two groups in a cultural sense, and that line never goes away once it’s there. And that dovetails with the next lesson I’ve learned . . .
5. There is more of a generational divide between people in their mid-30’s and people in their early 20’s than there is between people in their mid-30’s and people in their early 60’s.
I’m not talking about politics or fashion or taste in music. I’m talking about something far more basic. Namely, the core experiences we all had growing up.
Whether you were born in 1949 or 1980, the life of the typical American youth followed a similar pattern. To be sure, some of the elements were different, but the fundamental structure was the same. The difference between being a child of the 1960’s or a child of the 1980’s is the difference between two otherwise-identical Mad-libs with alternate words supplied to fill the blanks.
The essence of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood was the same. Examples are numerous. If a 17-year-old boy in 1955 wanted to ask a girl out, he basically had three options. He could talk to her face-to-face. He could call her on the phone. Or, less likely, he could write her a note or letter.
A 17-year-old boy in the mid-1990’s had these identical options.
I completed my senior year research paper in high school by going to the local college library, looking up sources in the card catalog, manually finding and looking through the books in question, and copying the information. The only slight difference between the way I did my research and the way one of my parents might have done theirs is that I had the luxury of being able to use a photocopier.
If I wanted to make plans with my friends growing up, we would have to meet somewhere at a predetermined time after discussing the matter and agreeing. It was impossible to plan anything on the fly or as a group unless we were all in the same car or room.
The fastest way for me to find out how hot or cold it was outside was to pick up a land line(!), dial T-I-G-E-R-1-1, and wait for the voice on the other end to announce the time and temperature.
These scenarios are foreign to anyone who came of age in the last decade-plus.
The metamorphosis of the manner by which we exchange information has done more to alter the day-to-day experience of youth than anything since the advent of radio.
6. I have very few real friends.
The number of people who actually care about me in a meaningful way is quite small. I don’t mean the number of people who might be disturbed by news of my death or something along those lines. That’s the laziest, least-invested kind of “caring.”
Excluding family members, I’m confident I could count the number of true friends I have on two hands with fingers left over. Of those, perhaps three or four at most would fall into the category of people on whom I could genuinely depend or trust to help me in a difficult moment. I think that’s typical for someone who’s more than a couple of years out of college (and willing to be honest with themselves).
A byproduct of the information age I just discussed has been a more self-centered, navel-gazing society. Over and above that, social networking sites like Facebook allow us to track friends with less effort than ever. Perhaps not coincidentally, most people actually care less than ever as well.
Mechanical or automatic interaction has replaced emotional investment. We needn’t bother caring enough to remember when a “friend’s” birthday is because Facebook will tell us. We don’t need to call friends to find out what’s new in their lives because they’ll issue proclamations on their social network of choice. “Friends” don’t need to inform us about relationships, because all they need to do is adjust a profile setting.
So, instead of directing interaction specifically toward another person, they direct it into their computer or smartphone and let technology serve as a go-between. In essence, they “interact” only with their own profile. This masturbatory social networking activity masquerades as friendship maintenance.
I’m thankful that I happen not to be wired this way. I would still rather talk to my friends (the real ones) on the phone or in person, or at least via a thoughtful e-mail. I do acknowledge that Facebook is a useful way to siphon off people with whom you may not want to maintain real friendships.
In fact, I actually have two Facebook profiles: One primarily for professional contacts, and my original profile that includes people I still see on a regular basis, my old teammates, and a few former co-workers.
Still, even I am sometimes amazed at how indifferent my “friends” can be. As an example, I’ve promoted this blog on my Facebook pages more than once, and, yet, the page for the Axis of Ego currently boasts a whopping total of 33 “likes,” two of which are my duo of profiles.
Of my 100 or so friends on my original profile, and my 800+ friends on my professional profile, fewer than thirty bothered to take the two seconds required to click “like” for a blog written by someone they know. Now, the professional profile—I don’t really care. I don’t even know a lot of those people. Many others are acquaintances at best.
However, my “real” profile has seen an even more astonishing level of indifference. I say astonishing because, were the situation reversed, I would always be happy to support my friends, especially in such a non-committal way.
That’s an example of the mountain of evidence I’ve accumulated that has led me to a healthy acceptance of my “friends'” (as opposed to my friends) shortcomings. The 22-year-old version of me would have been enraged by this level of apathy or narcissism displayed by these people. Now, I just accept it for what it is, and adjust my expectations accordingly. Speaking of which . . .
7. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean what we think it means.
I believe in the Golden Rule (i.e. “Treat others as you would want to be treated”). Most people think the Golden Rule means that “you’ll be treated the same way you treat others,” which simply isn’t true. The Golden Rule stands for the proposition that you should treat others the right way even knowing that most people are too selfish to reciprocate. Treating others the right way is an end unto itself.
The average person in 2012 will cancel plans without telling you, will fail to show up to help you move after saying they will, or won’t return a call for weeks—until they need a favor.
That’s why one of the most important things you can do to improve your life is to identify your real friends as quickly as possible, and minimize interaction with the people who don’t make the cut.
I’m not saying that you should remove them from your life entirely, depending on circumstances. I’m saying that I’ve found it’s better to manage my own expectations downward in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of people you’ll meet in the twenty-first century are too inward-looking to be aware—much less care—about whatever it is you’re doing in your life.
8. As long as you’ve got a pulse, it’s never “too late.”
If I didn’t believe in this principle, I would probably have committed significant time to researching the proper way to tie a noose. No, instead, I believe that, no matter what setbacks or disappointments any of us may have suffered, we always have a chance to make something positive out of whatever time we have left here on Earth. It might not be exactly what we imagined when we were kids, but opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others—or to better our own lives—are all around us. We just have to be willing to look for them and to work for those ends. As long as the spirit to pursue those opportunities still resides within us, life will always be worth living.