Friday, November 2, 2012

Getting Older: Identity and the Adjustment of Self-Perception

So, I just turned 35. It seems like an interesting point. This birthday, in conjunction with a few other things, has had me thinking lately.

I'm not young anymore. There are good things and bad things about this. The basic good is that I'm happy with my life. I have a career I love, a fantastic family full of crazy whippersnappers, and lovely online friends. The downside is the never particularly pleasant physical degrading that comes with getting older. I have a possibly serious (and at least very painful) internal problem (I won't bore you with the details). I also have a host of chronic joint injuries from an adventurous youth (and a clumsy adulthood). The result of these concerns is that it's hard to stay in shape; I basically can't do anything without some sort of unpleasant physical ramification. I'm jogging again, but we'll have to see how things hold up. Fingers crossed. Except some of those fingers are damaged and aching, too. :)

Needless to say, when I get up in the morning, I feel a little more like 85 than 35. The creaking you hear is not just the stairs...

And yet it's curious. Inside my head, I still feel young. I still feel a little like I'm 20. And often my ambitions and goals are based on this conception of myself as a 20-year-old.

This is normal. I think most people, even when they're elderly, have a self-conception of themselves as young, as the people they once were. The mirror can be a shock. Who is that person?

I think as children we learn about the world around us. As teenagers, we look inside and try to learn about ourselves, about who we are. As early adults, we've come to some conclusions; we have, in a sense, defined who we are. We've woven certain events, certain characteristics, abilities, and beliefs, into the fabric of who we are. They're now a part of how we perceive ourselves. When we think ME, these things are all included.

And yet sometimes these things change without us realizing it. And yet we still see ourselves in the same way. Svelte! Sometimes these delusions can be helpful. Optmism can be a beneficial thing. But sometimes these delusions, these mirrored refractions of what we once were, can be harmful. In the back of my head, I'm a teen or early 20-something. I was always an athlete growing up: a top-flight soccer player, and most other sports came very easily to me. And this natural ease with all things physical was part of how I conceived of myself. Athlete. Physically gifted.

Even now, my goals are subtly shaped by these conceptions. Earlier this year, I devised a goal to get back in shape and run a five-minute mile. I like ambition! I like difficult! But my body does not like ridiculous. My body does not like impossible.

There was a sudden conflict between my self-conception and my actual self. This five-minute-mile dream was still possible in the world of my self-conception, as my younger self could have done this. But my thirty-five-year-old self could not. There came a moment of realization, when all of this, which was chruning under the surface, suddenly became clear. The conscious realization of age, of the disparity between self and self-concept. I've realized that this younger me is gone (or partially gone -- transformed). And thinking it was not could be harmful.

My job is to accept the fact, it seems, that I am now 35, that I have a number of physical problems that will not be getting better; that will, in fact, be getting worse. This is simply a matter of physics, of the distribution of force over time.

So, I've been trying to come to grips with the new (old) me. The new me that is old(ish). It's not about despair, about giving up on your dreams, but about trying to understand what your dreams really are, what is reasonable; it is about trying to discern what you really want and expect out of life.

I don't need to be an athlete. I don't need to run a five-minute mile. Ambition is great, but it shouldn't kill you. What I want is some general health and fitness. I want to be around to play with my kids, to see them grow up. Grandbabies! I love babies.

The situation isn't quite so drastic for my intellectual ambitions. My brain, luckily, works much better than my body. But it has made me think a bit. Because some of my ambitions were the ambitions of that sleek, fast, young me, the one with lots of hair. What are my true ambitions in terms of writing now? How have they changed? What are my plans for pursuing these ambitions, if ambitions they still are?

I think 2013 will be a year for finding some of these answers. A year for looking into that mirror and figuring out who is looking out.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sounds like the adult you needs some new goals and ambitions.
The body getting old just sucks, no matter what your shape. I try to keep in shape but there are days when my body reminds me how fast I am approaching fifty.
And belated happy birthday!

Mieke Zamora-Mackay said...

I think it interesting that at about the same age, I went through this exact same thing. The fact that I was aging stressed me out completely. I used to joke about declaring that I refused to be older than 37. I even celebrated the age about two times after.

Things change. Our outlooks change too. We evolve with time. At least, we should.

Nate Wilson said...

I identify with this completely. In my teens, I was a runner (though a 5-minute mile was a dream for me even then). My early 20s, a tennis player, racquetballer and golfer. My late 20s, a volleyballer. Now that I'm into my mid-30s, I sometimes miss the more active life, but not the aches and pains that go with it as you age. I'm happy being a dad, and an aspiring writer and improviser.

Happy belated birthday, Bryan! And best of luck determining what you want to be and do next.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

It's completely natural to mourn the passing of anything, even parts of your life (or youth).

I've always had the goal of aging gracefully (as opposed to fighting it). What I found was that my brain refused to age at all! The body, yes, but the brain is constantly remaking itself, seeking new mountains to climb, new youthful challenges.

I wish you the best on your journey to find your new adventure in 2013!

D.G. Hudson said...

We all hit this Reality Wall at different ages, Bryan. We can glide along for years until, hey, can't party like we used to, bones and muscle feel stiff in the morning and spicy foods don't sit well.

I try to walk everyday, since writers spend a lot of time sitting. We do inclines(hills)and try to walk like we did in Paris. I can't run, I get inflammation of the kneecap, but I can be a walking fiend.

btw - Does the dark side ever acknowledge getting older? That would be a weakness, wouldn't it?

Matthew MacNish said...

We just need to develop that thing where they can connect your brain to the network, so you can still communicate. That way I'll still be able to talk to my kids when they're grown.

I'm afraid the things I did in my twenties have ruined any chance I had of hoping to see the other side of 70. That means my life is half over.

Marsha Sigman said...

Please. Thirty-five is the new twenty. And my momma would say you were just a baby.

It's all about the attitude. I take Zumba classes and tell myself that I look cool/hot as I try not to collapse from a heart attack. Self-denial is not always a bad thing.ha Happy Birthday.

Mira said...

Happy Birthday, Bryan. :)

And 35 is still young!

But I know what it is to feel the body getting more tired. I creak when I get out of bed in the morning! What is THAT about?? :)

So, I swim, which is terrific exercise for the joints, etc., and is very easy on the body. But I know some people don't like to swim, and losing their favorite exercise can be a real loss.

I know I've said this before, but there is a real trade-off in the aging process. You lose youth and beauty, there is no getting away from that. (Of course most people lose that in their early 50s, not their mid-thirties (please) so you actually have a ways to go, you young whippersnapper).

But in the aging process you gain so much. You gain perspective, knowledge, confidence, a sense of self, a sense of balance, and wisdom.

There is abolutely no question this will deepen and enhance to your writing. And if you want irony - the process of losing your youth will deepen your writing. Aging is not a zero-sum game, there are huge benefits. :)

Ted Cross said...

Wow, we sound so similar (though I'm 44 now)--soccer star and overall good athlete, internal ailments, etc. I had to shave off the beard and mustache I've had for 17 years and I hardly recognized the face in the mirror. It was a shock. Yet I do still feel in my mind like a young man. I hate growing old, which I suppose is why I'm writing a book centered around immortality.