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.
A corollary to the idea that your felt age might not match up with your calendar age is that you aren't confined to one chronological designation. If your ever-young psyche refuses to accept the fact of physical aging, or if you've resigned yourself to a miserable accumulation of physiological and psychological pain, I suggest trying a particular kind of manipulation: felt age time travel. By performing a few wizardlike quantum leaps—pretending that your felt age is years or even decades older or younger—you can visit different life stages, culling what is best from each. Here are some of my most useful era-hopping practices.
- Exercise one: Get past the pain. Hint from Sigmund: Whenever you're overwhelmed by a strong negative emotion, your felt age is probably that of a child. The next time you're anguished, enraged, or terrified, ask yourself, How old do I feel? Let a number pop up. This is the felt age of your suffering self.
- Exercise two: Go back for the good stuff. Caring for your inner child has a powerful and surprisingly quick result: Do it and the child heals. Then you'll find that feeling young can be an absolute delight, full of wonder, curiosity, and joy. I find one of the best ways to visit my own child self is through laughter. It is reported that the average adult laughs 15 times a day; the average child, more than 400 times. I think the felt age of someone who's laughing out loud is always brand-new.
- Exercise three: Tap teenage torridness. What laughter is to childhood, sex is to adolescence. Now take three deep breaths while vividly remembering the best sexual experience you ever had. Don't worry about whatever happened afterward—you had twins; he got a sex-change operation—just recall the physical details of that fabulously unforgettable encounter. Notice how your breathing deepens and your muscles begin to relax. You may start to feel a delicious melting sensation as your body shuts off stress hormones, replacing them with the elixir of love.
- Exercise four: Discover the wisdom of the ages. Here's an exercise that reaches forward in time, rather than backward. Think about the worst aspect of your present life situation, a problem you're not sure you can solve. Now invite a visitor into your presence.
But, you may be thinking, I probably won't live to see 150.
This exercise has gotten me through more tough times than I can count. I've learned from my 150-year-old self how to write a book, earn a living, survive the loss of friends and family members. She always has an answer and a little courage or comfort to give me, even when I have none (and she never gets tired—I'm telling you, the woman is spry). Your future self is waiting for an invitation to visit you with similar advice. Extend that invitation by letting your felt age zoom into the future, instead of trying to force it backward into youth.
There are infinite variations of these exercises. Armed with imagination and desire, you can jump to any phase of the life cycle. Each time you heal a childhood wound, feel a toddler's boundless hilarity, an adolescent's passion, or the wisdom of an elder self, you bring the best aspects of that experience into the present. You become a wizard, free to enjoy every stage of life but trapped by none, able to age backward, forward, and sideways at will. By gathering all ages together, you'll define yourself in a way the calendar never can.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Three Rivers), and Expecting Adam (Berkley).
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