We did not have a tradition of celebrating birthdays when I was growing up. My parents were frugal and pragmatic, and they didn’t make a big deal about theirs (or mine).
But as I turned thirty, I felt it was appropriate for me to observe my birthday in a special way. Perhaps it was the fact that both digits of my age were changing (see psychological pricing). Perhaps it was the notion that if the Birthday is a milestone, then the Decade Transition must be a big milestone and an even greater cause for celebration.
I couldn’t say I was excited about its arrival. Growing up, I had hoped to be settled down and well-established by my mid-twenties. Instead, I spent most of my twenties in grad school. In the days leading up to my birthday, I was confronted by this uncomfortable Question:
What do I have to show for the past decade of my life?
Being dissatisfied with what I had accomplished, I decided to go on my first solitary hike somewhere I had never been to clear my mind and reassess myself. The timeline I had set for myself decades ago, and refreshed (read: postponed) every year since, had yet to be fulfilled. Going out on my own was my attempt at hitting the “Reset” button and igniting a personal renaissance. I wanted to be a changed man when I returned.
The Comparison Game
As a kid, I was blessed in many respects. I was born into a family that highly valued education. My mom sacrificed a lot of her time to provide me with a strong foundation in math. My family would obtain boxes of English literature that schools discarded, and I would devour them in my free time. My teachers were, objectively speaking, very good (most of them, anyway). They also liked me for some reason and cared to see me succeed. I also wasn’t too bad at sports, even though I was almost always picked last for team sports during P.E. Pesky stereotypes.
I was a seed planted in fertile soil, and as I grew, I cultivated big dreams and high expectations, and so did those around me. I was expected to be academically the best by parents, friends, and classmates alike. Since “best” only made sense when comparing to other people, this mindset I was absorbing became second nature.
This pernicious habit has been hard to break, and it has not been helped by my living in Silicon Valley. The ethos of celebrating the success of the young permeates this place (and no doubt contributes to the rampant ageism in the startup culture).
Here, the word “dropout” is a badge of honor as much as self-made. Here, programs are branded to attract the world’s top [young] talent. Here, “twenty-nine” is “past my prime and I feel so behind the times”. Someone somewhere is always innovating, revolutionizing, or disrupting. The tech blogs make sure you know it. My Facebook news feed has become the channel through which I find out about the classmate who just appeared on that vaunted N under N list, or of the multimillion-dollar exit by that startup founded by a friend of a friend. I could go on.1
Being surrounded by people of such high caliber and reading the never-ending stream of success stories, I cannot help but feel… envious, and wonder where I went astray. Here, where people ostensibly admire you for your achievements, it’s easy to feel chronically deficient, which is tough when most of your life was built on a material vision of success.
Age and Aging
Fulfillment via achievement is an elusive thing. Once one milestone is reached, you are expected to work on the next one. This is true of research, it is true of product development, and it is true of wealth acquisition. It is what progress means. I have not seen one positive use of the phrase “resting on one’s laurels.”
What this means is that the age at which one accomplishes things matters. Becoming a professor at 40 is substantially less impressive than becoming a professor at 30.
The Cult of Meritocracy is obsessed with prodigies not only because their accomplishments are impressive—it is the fact that they came at so young an age (cue the list of “High school student invents X” headlines). If one were to extrapolate (which is always a shaky proposition) what these people could accomplish in the future at their present velocity, the results would surely be even more impressive.
This obsession with the rate of accomplishment is deeply ingrained in us when talking about life outside of work as well. Consider the unspoken but traditionally acknowledged societal milestones: owning a home, finding a mate, and having children. There’s an expectation of where we should be at a certain age, and when we aren’t there yet, we feel like we’re behind, not to mention the potential social stigma that accompanies our status, even if subtly.
Take romance, for example. In my twenties, I felt like I had all the time in the world to wait for the perfect person to come along. Now that I’ve hit thirty, I feel a sense of urgency because my decade digit just increased. No matter how people say, “Age is just a number,” people care about numbers. One is expected to be in a different stage of life. (I don’t anticipate the effect to be nearly as strong if people counted in the octal system, in which I would have just turned 36.)
Numbers matter. We feel it in our physiology. We get tired more easily, our bodies take longer to heal, we gain wrinkles, and—for women who want to have children—the biological clock ticks ever nearer to doomsday. Thirty is not the new twenty.
Whatever rationalization we give about personal growth cannot offset the deep discomfort we have about aging. If we had the option, we would much prefer becoming mature without getting older. Aging is a necessary evil, something that nobody wants but must accept in the process of growing.
Resolution and Reminder
And that is to be expected. Aging is a consequence of the Fall. We were made for life, but with sin came corruption and decay. God planted the knowledge of eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but our experience of death is at odds with it. If anything, our struggle with the concept of mortality points to the existence of eternity, its antithesis.
My obsession with accomplishment and aging are really two sides of the same coin: my security is currently governed by my standing in society—whether I’m smart or dumb, whether I have accomplished little or much (relative to my age group), whether I have gray hairs or not. The angst isn’t just a matter of unfulfilled childhood ideals, or of disappointing a few people’s expectations. It’s a constant paying of tribute to the specter of a question, “Do they like me now?” For in asking the Question, I am exposing this weakness of my character: that I place an inordinate amount of self-worth on what people think of me. I want to be liked, to be respected, even to be admired. And becoming older generally detracts from that.
But at the end of the day, while what society says about us has an impact on our fleeting existence on earth, the God of the Universe has something else to say about the meaning and import of our lives: that He who created the universe is sovereign over it; He declares the end from the beginning; His counsel shall stand and He will accomplish all his purpose (Isaiah 46:10). And His purpose and His will is this: that through the sacrifice of His Son, I may share in Christ’s sonship, and be co-heirs with him, that I may one day inherit what He is storing up for me. While on this earth, I am being conformed into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
As for now, He is already working to restore the world and the curse of the Fall—even as soon as He issued them in Genesis 3—so that where there is disappointment, sorrow, and regret, we can be confident that in Christ, there is also redemption and hope. If God works all things for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28), then even aging must be redeemed.
Indeed, in God’s redeemed world, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Proverbs 16:31) and, “the glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29). My young friend 香り reminded me of this as she wished me a happy birthday:
I want to [be] getting old like you. I mean, the more you [are] getting older, the more you [are] filled with His wisdom.
That statement came as a refreshing surprise, and reminded me that God’s kingdom is an upside-down one, and that His wisdom is at odds with man’s wisdom. It reminds me that I should be seeking that which is worth more than gold or silver (Proverbs 16:16).
Ultimately, my disappointment stems from my failure to achieve glory for myself, but it is not the glory of my own achievement that will ultimately satisfy me anyway. It is the glory of being His son. And that is a lesson that I see myself wrestling with repeatedly in the years to come. For now, I will press on in this race that I have been called to, and pray to be given more wisdom and better eyes through which to see Him more clearly.
1 In a rare inside look into one celebrity’s struggles, one begins to understand that even those on top by no means have it easy.