Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash
Originally Published int the Wisdom Well - Modern Elder Academy Blog
I hear again and again that age is a mindset, that it doesn’t matter; age isn’t a number, and that it is something to “get over” so you can live your life.
It is only something to get over if you had it in the first place.
“How old are you?” for many, is a simple throw-away response; one that they don’t have to think about because they have always known the answer to the question.
I was surrendered to an orphanage with my twin brother after we had learned to stumble and toddle a few steps and utter a few syllables that were appropriate. There was no paperwork with us. We were malnourished and very tall. It was anyone’s guess how old we were. We could have been a year, but we could have been two.
To be clear, we were not in a “please sir, can I have some more” situation. We were well cared for. We were given things that many kids weren’t because we were in the orphanage. We received swimming, music and art lessons. People came to teach us soccer and cricket. There were toys and books and clothes that were sometimes new and sometimes not, no different than any other kid who had gifts and hand-me-downs.
The difference was that we had a rotating roster of caretakers who did the best they could with the number of kids that were in their care. They were kind and caring and over-whelmed, even though we were a small orphanage
By the time our relatives found us, we could have been five and we could have been eight. No one really knew. More paperwork had been lost and the priest had to send along a birth certificate – or something – for twins; boy/girl twins from a small orphanage on Skye to America where we were going. We were given a document that was at least a decade wrong, if not more. We saw it as funny. I would say “hey, happy birthday!” on the day that the paper we brought with us said was our birthday. He would cock his head and look at me and ask quizzically “is it?” In college, he would show up with something wrapped in a different month on a different day and say “Cumpleanos” in honor of the man who adopted us, who was from Argentina, or "feliz shona' diat" (a combination of Spanish and Gaelic - Gaelish).
Medicine tells me that I am somewhere in my fourth decade. I am fine with that. Other people aren’t. They want to impose their version of age and what numbers mean. They explain how old they think I am based on their life events and what they have learned and understood in their life and what they think I know and understand, and how I speak about things.
This isn’t a new way to gauge the age of someone and seems to be a ruler by which many people need to define my age. It is often wrong. For instance, I was placed in the second grade because of my vocabulary and reading ability: A common way to gauge the education of a child. I love language and how words feel on the tongue. But my twin understood the tongue in a different way, through food, how to grow things, and what tastes work together. I am sure his intelligence outstripped mine in many other things as well. People, for instance.
The point is that other people’s version of my age does not matter to me And, might I point out, I am not the only person in the world who does not know their birthday. Many people all over the globe, share this with me. Especially those of us from orphanages, who have been through wars as children, or who were in great disasters, those who lost their parents, or even cultures who identify age differently than the Gregorian calendar. It used to be that many rural places in China registered everyone who had been born in a year on one day. So, everyone had the same birthday according to the government.
This says that age is only a way to count people. To measure empirically “how many…”
In American society, age seems to be something to negotiate (age gracefully) or commodify (buy this to fight Aging), or use as a weapon. We have a whole body of writings and research to argue against the idea of the Elder as a bad thing (which frankly I agree with wholeheartedly).
The Great God Age is also a group identifier and a way to proclaim attitudes or behaviors. I find myself reverse-identifying a lot. I must be a millennial because I like Lark Street Dive. But I remember Dial-Up. Hmmmm. Maybe I *am* Gen X. I check my credit score a lot (Gen Z), and I loved Scooby-Doo (still do), so Baby Boomer. The liminality of transition from one age to another as an identity is tough for most people. It is uncomfortable to not know what the next identity is.
The thing is, I don’t really care most days that I don’t know, but then sometimes I do. I want to be a part of the game too. I want to talk about wisdom and wearing purple and proclaim my emerging self from the liminal stage. But really all I can do is talk about my process. Others place their definitions of where I am in their version of age to help them understand where I might be. Living in the present is what I do because age is the thing that defines the future and the past, but it doesn’t define me. There has never been a way to do so.
Not because I don’t let it, but because it never has.
I suspect I am better off. Are you?