It was November 1989 and I was studying abroad in Brisbane, Australia. It was early summer in the southern hemisphere and my friends and I were sitting on the bank of the river with a bottle of wine and some snacks. It was terrible wine. Back then the Shiraz coming from that part of the world was young and strong, too much oak and pepper. But we didn’t care because we were 19 and we had wine! Nick, Peter, Michelle, and I sat on the soft blanket and talked about very important things, like the stats of Nick’s beloved Manchester United soccer (football) team, and Michelle’s and my adventure the previous week when we had seen Simple Minds in concert.
Someone mentioned the future, I don’t remember who it was, but it suddenly got quiet on our blanket. I could tell we were each retreating into our heads for a few minutes, imagining our goodbyes coming up in just a few weeks when I was scheduled to return to Colorado, and the semester ended for the others and they went their separate ways.
“We should all meet back here in the year 2000 when we’re all 30!”
“Yes, let’s make a pact that we will stay in touch and come back to this spot in November, 2000, to celebrate our birthdays.”
We all agreed, but in my head, I was thinking: “30? I’ll never be 30. I won’t live that long.”
Okay, it sounds morbid, I know, and maybe it was, but my thinking was simply that I knew I had a tendency to be impulsive and take unnecessary risks. As a matter of fact, that week I had already decided to hitchhike through New Zealand by myself on my way home in late December and early January. I did that, by the way, and was lucky not to have any really scary experiences. But I didn’t tell my mother about it until years later.
So there we were, talking about the year 2000 as if it was some far-off place.
As adults over 30, we all know how quickly time can pass, and it did. Thirty didn’t sound old to me, it just seemed unlikely.
Why do those decade birthdays hold so much fear, discomfort, and angst? I really don’t understand it.
Many of my friends and family members struggled with turning 30, 40, 50, etc. saying it made them sad to feel like they were OLD, like old is an insult. But why is old such a bad thing for people? When we turn 30 and get sad because we’re “old”, is it because we’ve forgotten the angst and discomfort of our teen years? Sure, getting older has its frustrations and discomfort, I know it takes me a lot longer to recover from a big night out, a rigorous hike, or even the first gardening day of the season (my hamstrings are screaming at me this week.)
I don’t miss the anxiety of my youth. Am I pretty enough, thin enough, active enough, smart enough? That search for comfort in my skin, for confidence and identity, was so painful over the years. I’ll take 50 over 25 any day.
A few years ago as we sat at my dining room table, my mother noticed a few gray hairs on my head.
“I can see your gray hairs, Sarah.”
“I know! Aren’t they cool? They sparkle when the light hits them!”
“You’re going to have to color it.”
I thought, but didn’t say out loud, “I don’t HAVE to do anything.”
“I don’t think so, mom. I might want to at some point, but right now I have no plans to do that.”
“You’re going to look OLD.”
And there it was. That projection of what old looks like to her – it looks ugly. Never mind that she’s beautiful at 70+, that she happens to have awesome genetics to lean on, like I do. To her, signs of aging are ugly, and I suppose that’s the case for a lot of people.
I look at her smile, I know her heart and her compassionate soul. I think she’s beautiful.
So what is it about those decade birthdays that make us so uncomfortable?
Are we worried about the future?
Are we facing regrets?
Are we concerned about no longer being relevant?
I’m guessing those are a big part of the angst as we pass a milestone birthday. I’ve been thinking about how to address this, especially now that I’ve passed my own milestone of 50.
- What exactly makes you so sad about your upcoming birthday?
- Regrets? Not where you thought you would be?
- What brought you here? Were any circumstances beyond your control? Do you have some complicity?
Choose your future.
- Will you face the same disturbing questions in 5 years? How far do you want to take your past regrets into your future? What changes do you need to make in your own mindset and communication to improve your relationships in the future? What really matters to you, and how do you want to celebrate your next milestone birthday? Where do you want to BE? (I suggest you think deeply about this, and not in terms of financial or career goals, but in terms of your relationships and personal development.)
Make daily adjustments.
- What small thing can you do each day to avoid those future regrets, and to look forward to your next big birthday? Take a 15-minute walk twice each day? Write a thank-you note to someone who had a positive impact on you? Begin writing that book you’ve always wanted to write, 15 minutes at a time? Work on your resume, build a supportive professional network, spend time in self-reflection to improve your communication and relationships? You will be surprised what you can accomplish in 15 minutes each day when you’re consistent with it.
And for goodness’ sake, stop thinking that growing older is a bad thing. As long as you’re breathing, communicating, growing, and learning, age is a blessing and you have something of value to contribute. Your relevance has nothing to do with your age, just like your income has nothing to do with your success.
Face your next birthday with gratitude and excitement, because some of your best stories haven’t even been written.