I’ve already benefited from the extra five minutes added to my Boston-qualifying marathon time next year. I’ll soon be considered a masters runner – another reason to love distance running, its way of making aging sound like a secret pass to a prestigious club. Sometimes, I might have to check a different box on survey forms.
Other than that, I don’t think much will change when I turn 40 later this month. And there’s one thing I know will stay the same: I’ll continue avoiding the temptation to apologize for or crack (even self-deprecating) jokes about my age.
I didn’t always feel this way. A decade ago, as I approached 30, I’d be the first person in a group to call myself old or mention such gasp-inducing facts as the distance I trekked to my college computer lab to check my brand-new email account.
My maturity was the elephant in the room, I figured. Might as well get it out in the open so we could get on with our workout, or brunch, or whatever else was on the agenda.
But then, I started to pay more attention to what happened after I made these comments. If, indeed, everyone was born after me, I’d typically get one of two reactions—nervous, awkward laughter, or else a heartfelt assurance that I looked much younger than my age.
The first simply signaled everyone’s discomfort. The second is certainly kind—if you’ve ever told me this, bless you! But even when sincere and not forced, the sentiment led me to ponder what was so awful about my chronological age and imagine the horrors that would arise when, inevitably, time caught up with my face, hands and fashion sense.
And if I wasn’t actually the oldest? Well, then, the even-oldsters had a choice: embarrassing silence or outing themselves, with the resultant round of consoling. In effect, I’d drawn an imaginary line between “young” and “old” that just so happened to coincide with the year on my driver’s license.
As I reflect on these interactions, I increasingly realize that communication isn’t as much about what you say as how the listener responds. As Maya Angelou once put it: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Joking about or lamenting my age alleviated my own anxiety for a hot second, but it soon made everyone uneasy, and that’s a sensation people remember. And I didn’t like the lingering effects on my own psyche, either. Over time, the constant act of judging myself for something I had absolutely no control over made me more harsh and critical of others too.
Now, there are times when I might want my words to provoke discomfort—in the face of the injustice, abuse or hate we’re smacked in the face with seemingly every day. But those bigger issues are all the more reason not to build walls or sharpen divisions over something as inevitable and inconsequential as age. (As a good friend always says, we’re born at different times—it’s a feature, not a bug, and the world would be pretty darned crowded otherwise.)
When it comes to getting older, the main feeling I want to evoke with my words and actions is solidarity. We’re all on the same path, albeit at different places. Everything’s better with friends, and I don’t think birthdays—however many of them you’ve had—are any exception. So I’m ready to live comfortably in this new decade, and hope you’ll join me to celebrate it.