Lately I’ve been thinking about how age is to some extent a social construct. Satchel Paige famously said,
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
Paige did not perform his chronological age. He began his very long baseball career in the Negro Leagues. In 1948, at the age of 42, he began playing for the Cleveland Indians–one of the first players of color in the desegregating major leagues. It’s worth noting that this was ten years after he sustained such a serious shoulder injury that doctors told him he would never pitch again. He played until he was 47.
I believe that age is a social construct as much as it is a biological fact, and that by performing older ages, we often limit our potential.
I hear people say all the time that they’re too old to learn some kind of technology or to understand a social network. Of course, this is nonsense. All it takes to figure these things out is the willingness to try things out and make a lot of mistakes–the same as learning anything. We can learn new things throughout our adult lives, and it’s way better for our brains if we do.
Even the biological facts of aging seem somewhat mutable, as Ellen Langer’s fascinating psychological studies suggest. I strongly recommend getting your mind blown by this New York Times article about her work, “What If Age Is Nothing But a Mindset?”
When people 40 and up have an ache or a pain, or forget something, they’re likely to say, “See, I’m getting older.” But when a younger person forgets something, she might say, “God, I’m such a flake sometimes.” When she has aches or pains, she might think, “Ugh, bodies are weird.”
I’ve heard people say they are too old to go dancing, start a new career, leave a miserable marriage and date again–the list goes on and on.There are a few things you probably can’t do as, say, an over-30 person, such as become a world champion figure skater if you don’t know how to ice skate yet. (You could probably still become good enough to impress everyone at the local rink, if that’s what you’re into.) But most things are still on the table.
If performing an older age is so limiting, why do so many of us do it? Mostly, we’re believing the stories we as a society have chosen to tell ourselves about aging. Often, these stories are told in order to make us feel bad so we’ll buy various products.
Maybe we’re scared of people laughing at us if we’re doing something “young” when we’re not supposed to be young any more–but, you know, fuck ’em. They’re just jealous, anyway.
Maybe acting older offers a convenient excuse for never leaving our comfort zone. We don’t have to try something new that we might suck at, embark upon a new adventure even though it’s scary, or pursue a goal that we might never reach, because hey, we’re old!
For my part, I can handle being laughed at, and sucking at things. I can deal with nerve-wracking new situations. Unmet goals, unfulfilled dreams? Big fucking deal–nobody gets everything she wants. What scares me more than any of these things is living a timid life.
Anyway, I’m afraid that if I say now that I’m too old to do something, my future 100-year-old self will want to go back in time to kick my ass. By then, she might have the technology to do it, too. I don’t want to piss her off. I’m guessing she’s pretty tough.
The truth is, as people get older, they still carry their younger selves inside them, like a bunch of matryoshka dolls–the Russian ones that nest one inside the other. There’s no reason not to let one of your former selves out to play.
Or you could decide to perform a person of a younger age that’s a person you never were, but always wanted to be.
Think of an age that seems like the right, the best age for you right now. (If you have kids in the house and this makes the age difference between you and them weird, I don’t know, pretend you’re the older sibling who’s their guardian, or something. You’re like Charlie on Party of Five, if you’re old enough to remember that show.)
Consciously be that age.
Let’s say you’re 60. How does your mood, mindset, and decision-making change, once you decide to be 40?
This can work the other way, too, obviously. If you’re only 22 and you feel clueless and inexperienced, think of yourself as 32. See if you carry yourself with more confidence.
Try it out and see if you like it. You can always switch back.