When considering the idea of ageing, what likely comes to mind is clichéd images of the aged man or woman. The wilted rose. The once-beautiful woman – now haggard and tired, like a worn leather bag – looking despondently into the mirror and considering what once was. Perhaps she is wondering how time managed to creep up on her like this. The knees are the first to go, I’m told, then the hips. The eyesight rapidly deteriorates after this, and doing most things becomes harder and slower. Everything becomes a chore.
However, as someone who is only 18, it can be hard to relate to these images as I have yet to age at all. How can one comprehend what it is to physically deteriorate, when they’ve only just become fully grown? You’re on the upward part of your life, growing into yourself and your own skin, as opposed to slipping out of it. So instead, you are as of yet indifferent to the clichéd fears of aging. Thoughts of hip replacements, the crunching of arthritic knuckles and the approaching horizon of your own mortality all seem very far off. This is not to say that you have not had your own experiences of ageing. Rather, for someone like me, who is still in the beginning of life, this concept of ageing cannot be directly applied.
Instead, I have had a very different experience of ageing. I think of it more as a ‘coming of age.’ That time in your life when you physically become more suited to your own body, develop confidence in yourself and are more comfortable expressing your ideas and opinions. You “come into your own,” meaning that you have a firm sense of who you are as a person and are glad to be in that position. Coming of age is the time in which you learn all the difficult lessons that early life provides. That time you tried and failed, the first heartbreak, the bitter sting of being the last one picked for the Netball team. You have those necessary experiences to grow as a person and emerge as a better, more mature and grounded version of yourself. I think of those iconic bildungsromans. Jane Eyre for instance. I read this book at age 15, and then again at age 18, and each time it took on a different meaning. Upon my first reading, I was baffled by the improbability of the story and couldn’t see much further than that. However, on my second reading, I began to look into the notion of coming of age as it appears in the book. Over its course, Jane transforms from the uninhibited, underestimated and troublesome child to the more eloquent woman. After spending a significant amount of time in subservience and debt to the other characters, with her life dictated by them, she finally emerges as someone who they can respect and rely on. The self-doubt and confusion she suffers at the beginning of the story gives way to her later certainty and a much more autonomous and self-assured character. Towards the end of the novel, as opposed to being the one who is kept in the dark, it is she who switches on the light. This was my own teenage understanding, and I believe it resonates with most teenagers’ understanding of ageing at this point in their lives. Instead of the transition from vitality to decay, I think more of the transition from child to adult. Crossing that invisible but anticipated boundary and emerging as the fully transformed version of yourself.
What does this coming of age metamorphosis look like to a child? At ten or eleven, this may manifest itself as that early, stifling awkwardness. The feeling of not quite fitting into your own body. Your limbs are too long and stringy. You struggle to make them all work at once. Your ears are far too big for your small head and you’re still stuck in that androgynous body waiting to become yourself. You spend time watching the teens around school, only a few years older than you, and wondering how they’ve managed to grow so successfully into themselves. You wonder when you will become as confident as them. They interact in a way which still feels foreign to you, full of attitude and confidence. Then you arrive at age fifteen or sixteen, perhaps now at last slightly more comfortable in your own skin, but hungry to move onto the next phase of your life. You want nothing more than to be that adult figure. You want to be the clean, polished and finished version of yourself. For most of us there is a point which marks this arrival. A universally known point: the age of eighteen. That famed moment.
Like a golden, star studded, vodka flavoured, (legal) club admitting enigma. Eighteen. This is the point when you have arrived. When you come of age and arrive at the best version of yourself to date. For most teens, coming of age is what ‘ageing’ actually represents and juvenile as it may seem, this is glorified and celebrated amongst popular culture as your biggest achievement and most exciting change in your life to date! Extravagant parties are thrown and celebrations continue well past the day itself. This is the point, all shrouded in mystery, and it is bathed in the excitement of having finally arrived. Having come of age. But why at this point in our lives do we choose to place so much emphasis on ageing? Why do we choose now to celebrate it, as opposed to shy away from it as is often the case later in life? For someone like me, up until recently, I would argue that this is because ageing never had any foreseeable downfalls. It didn’t represent a pension or incontinence. No, ageing meant independence. It meant freedom. It represented finally knowing who you are. No more anxieties in your own body. Never again would you have to tolerate the condescending attitude of the adult world, because at last you would finally be in it. At this moment, once you have come of age, every aspect of your life that was previously up in the air, would fall neatly into place.
Unfortunately, much like the melancholy feeling of opening a birthday present you neither wanted nor needed, instead of elation and satisfaction there is a sense of disillusionment – a slap in the face. There is no sense of having arrived. There are no fireworks. There is a noticeable lack of epiphany. The profound knowledge and understanding simply isn’t there. Instead, what you are left with is the creeping realization that yes, you have aged. But in terms of how you feel in yourself, little has changed. You are left with a concerning sense of disappointment and anxiousness that perhaps, this is as good as it gets. You don’t feel older or wiser. You are no more self assured or confident than you were before. Your flaws and insecurities are all still there, except now, to you, they seem even more glaringly obvious. You are one of the elite members of the adult world that the younger version of yourself always idolised, yet you feel like an imposter, a knock-off version, about to be found out at any moment and swiftly kicked out of the bar. Despite finally having aged to maturity, you feel younger than ever.
When going in to school or college a few days after turning 18, it seems to be a tradition to be asked how exactly you are feeling: “You’re an adult now. Congratulations!” Followed by the mandatory “-do you feel any different?” You take the first moment of reflection since your celebrations and come to admit to yourself and your friends that “why, I feel exactly the same.” You can, at this point expect to see that sense of sympathy, recognition and understanding in their eyes. Nothing has changed. When I asked my friends what they thought about the idea of ageing, what they thought of more than anything was this profound sense of disappointment and confusion. Suddenly becoming aware of your own incapability. You aren’t the wise and experienced person you imagined you would suddenly become. After spending your lifetime expecting to feel more mature and in control of your own life, you are faced with the most hideous paradox: Despite all the ageing you’ve done, you’re still arguably at the beginning of your life and have no idea where to go.
Yet suddenly adults, “real adults” as you think of them, are expecting things of you. Independence, self-awareness, social capabilities, understanding and controlling your emotions in public. It’s your name that goes on all the forms now, not your mother’s. It is you who books all of your appointments and attends them on your own, without the comforting softness of a parent or guardian hand in your own. It is you who has to navigate the smoky, loud, and disorientating world of the night club; full of music you feel you should like but can’t quite relate to yet, and men old enough to be your dad offering to buy you drinks, when all you can think of is how you’re surely still too young to be here. Can they tell by your dancing that you’re not truly aged? Is your youth obvious in the way you walk? Can they tell your blatant naivety from the way you sip that drink?
Then on those nights when you find yourself leaning at the bar, telling yourself you’ve grown up now, you’ve arrived, you realise between sips of a cocktail you’re too young to appreciate, you’d much rather be at home, in bed, but also realising there is no obligation for you to be there anymore. Legally, nobody has any requirement or obligation to care about you, to know where you are. You are your own voice of authority now. Is this what growing older means?
As this sense of self-awareness arrives, you begin to question constantly what is and isn’t socially acceptable now that you’ve aged enough to cross that boundary into adult life, never knowing where exactly you stand. Suddenly and paradoxically you realise that after spending all this time anticipating your own ageing, you suddenly wish that you were young again. You realise that your youth, and all the time that you have had so far, are never going to be yours again.
You’ve become too old to watch high school films. Each iconic character receives the privilege of being frozen there in time. They can revel in their own teenage angst, safe in the knowledge that they never have to grow out of it. They still have everything going for them, and relive the experiences you condemned as juvenile and immature, again and again and again. In fact you’ve surpassed them. You are what comes after the film ends. After the credits roll, you are the life afterwards that continues on, and was never worthy of gracing the screen. You’re the adult life that comes after the iconic moment when John Bender punches the air. You are the mundane life that carries on after every pupil has stood up from their desk. You’re life depicts what happens when the camera stops rolling. Your time in that moment is gone. Spent.
At the realisation of lost time, my immediate reaction was to panic and wonder whether ageing is in fact a trap. A disorientating, misleading trap. However, when confiding in a friend about all of these fears a month after this infamous birthday, she agued that it all depends on your outlook. At the time, and with a disappointed and closed mind, I ignored her suggestion. To me ageing seemed like an inevitable and constant, unstoppable force. Sooner or later I’d be expected to leave home. I’d have to get a degree or a part time job. Then a real job. I’d have to actually have some meaningful relationships. Eventually I’d do “what all the grown ups did” and get married. I suppose after that I’d have children. Around this time, I’d begin to worry about the first type of ageing I mentioned. The type where gravity becomes your worst enemy and everything begins to sag. That’s when I start to wander round my house murmuring to myself about the state of youth today, tutting at the television whilst chewing on soft cereal to accommodate the dentures that I’d inevitably need.
Once I had managed to put this rather oppressive and condemning train of thought on hold, I returned to my friend’s earlier suggestion, more seriously considering what she had said. Ageing is what you make of it. Yes, you get older physically, and the inevitable aches and pains start to creep up. However, the older you become, surely the wiser you are getting. Now this certainly does not happen all at once, as any eighteen year old or twenty-something can tell you, but logically you can expect to know more. You begin to understand yourself better and become more creative. You become more yourself. All those freedoms that may overwhelm you now, later you will use to make something more of yourself. You learn that the perfect version of you, which you assumed would occur over night with age, is something that you have to piece together for yourself. Perhaps for some, that initial feeling of dissatisfaction that comes with age is something that never quite goes away. Perhaps it is all about a slow physical decline, and perhaps you never feel you are truly acting your age. However, after experiencing firsthand the fear and discomfort that thinking this way causes you to feel, I prefer to orientate my outlook on aging in a more positive way. Something to look forward to but not to rush towards. Something to anticipate but not to overindulge in. So all the petty observations about those older than me which I have made are not something to shy away from, but rather something to look forward to.
Charlotte Bronte, Originally titled: Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, (Smith, Elder & Co. of London, England, under the pen name “Currer Bell.” 1847)
CrashCourse (2014) Reader, It’s Jane Eyre: Available at http://youtube.com/watch?v=Z8tqY8fX0Ec (Accessed: Friday 16th September 2016)
The Breakfast Club (1985) Directed by John Hughes [Film] Universal Pictures
Dead Poet’s Society (1989) Directed by Peter Weir [Film] Buena Vista Pictures Distribution