I feel about aging the way William Saroyan said he felt about death: Everybody has to do it, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. I suspect you and I are alike that way. I've never met anyone whose "felt age" followed the same steady progression as her calendar age. Children who assume adult responsibilities (worrying about money, protecting siblings) feel old when they're young. Adults under threat feel like children. Almost all my middle-aged and elderly acquaintances, including me, feel about 25, unless we haven't had our coffee, in which case we feel 107.
The difference between calendar age and felt age is particularly drastic for us First World, 21st-century folk. In cultures without the medical and labor-saving technologies we enjoy, many 35-year-olds look as withered as most North Americans do at 70. In one century, we've added 28 years to our average life span—a change so rapid that our brains couldn't possibly have evolved to accommodate it. Perhaps this is why, starting in middle age, many people report feeling about 15 years younger than they are.
Then again, maybe we feel younger because we're so well preserved—maybe 50 really is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30, however annoying it is to hear people announce it. Or it may be that we require 15 years to adequately internalize any age, so our awareness always lags behind our actual history. Whatever the cause, as calendar age plods inexorably forward, felt age zips around like a hummingbird, hovering around certain time periods, zooming right past others, changing direction just when we get a bead on it. We virtually never feel our age, but thinking that we should can lead to disaster.
Calendar Age and Felt Age: Chronological Versus Illogical
There are several ways to mess up your life by fighting to make your calendar age match your felt age. I live in the Southwest, a part of the country with more than its share of fair skies, material wealth, and people who are trying not to be as old as they are. There's no sight more terrifying than a woman who has recovered from a dozen or so plastic surgeries by tanning in the desert sun. I don't want to sound cruel, but picture a Komodo dragon in spandex.
"People don't understand that aging never stops," a plastic surgeon friend recently told me. "Even while I'm lifting a face, that face is getting older." In other words, the eternally 25-year-old person who lives in your body is going to see a reflection in the bathroom mirror that is a little older every day of her life.
On the other hand, accepting a felt age that's decades ahead of your calendar age can keep you from fixing something that's broken by factors other than time. For instance, a year ago I found myself perpetually tired and breathless, unable to exercise as hard as usual. I figured I was simply decrepit, but blood tests showed anemia; my first dose of iron supplements took 20 years off my felt age. Similarly, as Joan Acocella noted in a New Yorker article on writer's block, a number of great 20th-century American authors who had problems with alcohol flamed out early not because they were getting older but because they were getting progressively more pickled.
Perhaps the saddest (and most common) instance of felt age leaping ahead of calendar age, though, relates to the accumulation of emotional pain. Since our society equates happiness with youth, we often assume that sorrow, quiet desperation, and hopelessness go hand in hand with getting older. They don't. Emotional pain or numbness are symptoms of living the wrong life, not a long life. The thing I love most about my job is watching people age backward, becoming more lively and energetic as they free themselves from situations that are toxic to their essential selves.