The Third Something

027 / I Don't Know How To Be Older Than This

How I lost my way and some advice for creative folk in their 30s.

A black and white enso circle by Adam Westbrook

I have spent the last few days in Paris on a spur of the moment mini-break. I haven’t been since Christmas and oh! did I need it.

Almost as soon as I arrived I felt a levity, a lightness of being, that lasted the whole trip. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything special about Paris - it is, after all, as noisy, stressful, busy, expensive and difficult as any city; but perhaps by association and the history I have with it, it induces warm vibes.

I also took a break from reading: no books, no papers and, with a 90% success rate, no internet content. It opened up some space to write, to draw, and to think, and oh! did I need that too. To wit:

When I was feeling down a few weeks ago I was struck, on a particularly bad day, by the familiar sense of panic about the future, and how little of it I could see. I’m sure you have days where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, where you’re going, maybe even that you have lost control of the situation.

In my head, it manifested itself with this phrase:

“Oh no, I don’t know how to be older than this”

Maybe that sounds obvious. Of course we don’t know how to be older than we are! That’s how time works.

But it came as a shock to me. I always used to feel that I knew the path ahead, at least the next step: ‘next you do university, and then you do this training program and then you get a job and then…’

The conventional beats of life only get you so far. Now, at the age of 34, I was feeling like I had run out of road, staring down the barrel of middle age; struck by the realisation that I have no idea what on earth I’m supposed to do next.

I have thought a lot about what some of the causes of this might be. Here are three:

Firstly, one thing that feels in short supply are role models. While our youth-obsessed culture provides no shortage of young people to aspire to, the older you get the more they seem to thin out. Certainly, if you’re looking for a male role model who is behaving well in middle age, good luck to you. But no-one says role models must be the same gender; I find the way Elizabeth Gilbert lives her life, for example, a rare beacon of light to follow. But who else?

Secondly, many people my age are starting families and one of the positive side-effects (or negative, depending on your point of view!) is that children paint in the next two decades of your life. Family provides a map, gives you a role to play, establishes priorities. C and I don’t have children by choice and one of the side-effects of this (again, both positive and negative) is that the next twenty years have no map, no new roles to play.

And thirdly, the world around us seems to be turning less safe, less stable. A smart friend of mine tweeted recently that it felt like we all have ten more years of being able to live in this familiar, convenient way before the inexorable consequences of this convenience catch up with us. It is hard to be concrete about the future, to imagine older versions of ourselves, when the world itself makes no guarantees.

These three reasons all make a lot of sense. And yet they also conveniently absolve me of all responsibility…

… so how about this:

What if my problem isn’t role models or family or world events; what if my problem is me? What if it’s my naive hope that I can sit around for life to happen to me? After all, it did, kind of successfully, for a very long time - that carousel of conventional life beats, moving me through the years.

Somewhere along the line, the carousel has ended, and I have only just noticed.

This comes with a thrilling corollary: no one else is going to make life happen for me. If I want to be a successful this or a renowned that, life isn’t going to just deliver it. I’m now too old to have helping hands or encouragement from the world.

And somehow, knowing that it is my responsibility alone, makes it feel terrifyingly…doable.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from novelist Erica Jong, which landed on my lap at just the right time.

“Take your life into your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.”

Until another Sunday soon,

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