“Ugh. I’m so old. I’m such a fart.”
This refrain has become a ubiquitous catchphrase of mine over the last year or two. It punctuates my social circles, it initiates a reliable call-and-response with my girlfriend, and frankly, it even pops up sometimes when no one else is around, as something I mutter to myself. It’s a versatile interjection with hundreds of applications, much like a hot new slang term or a fun idiom. It can refer to feeling strange aches in even stranger places after simply going through an ordinary day without obvious physical strain, or can refer to accidentally passing out on the couch at 11:00 PM. It can be a self-deprecating jab after I accidentally engage in an hour-long discussion about the nuances in my I-1099 forms, or when I find myself reading a historical nonfiction novel for fun. It can be a tacit acknowledgment about the hilarious, astonishing fact that I just spent forty-five minutes cooking my own pesto cream sauce, or that my partner and I just spent ten minutes in the produce section debating whether $1.99/lb tomatoes or $0.69/ear sweet corn is a better deal today.
For clarity’s sake — I’m 28. I’m not really old, at least not in objective terms. My close friends and I all have more than half our lives ahead of us. The joy of the refrain largely lies in the humorous irony behind it. It’s fun to hyperbolically bemoan the rapid fleeting of our youth when we actually don’t feel all that different, as a whole, than we did when we just got out of college.
That is to say – I still believe that french fries are one of mankind’s Top-10 inventions of all time. I still spend way too much time laughing at meaningless gags online. My friends and I will still deliver unwanted serenades to the rideshare drivers brave enough to pick us up at 2 AM after one of the many occasions we find worthy of celebration. I still find the prospect of purchasing a home financially daunting, not to mention frighteningly permanent. I still manage to stumble over some of the most basic grown-functioning-human-tasks on a semi-regular basis. In many, if not most, moments, my cohort and I feel mostly like exceptionally large children secretly navigating the adult world, just hoping the con isn’t found out.
“Growth” can mean many things to different people, but the one seemingly constant miscalculation we make as human beings is our social instinct to measure maturity as a finite concept marked by tangible milestones. It’s simple to believe that earning a stable job, purchasing a residence, convincing someone to marry you, and producing children are all distinct “adult” markers to be ticked off by tangible age dates in order to complete the process of “growing up.” Even by the metrics of Erik Erikson, our progress as human beings is tied to numbers; by 21, we should have our complete identity formed or be doomed for a life of personal confusion, by 39, if we haven’t managed to find a long-term romantic partner, well, we’re doomed for isolation.
But the reality, of course, is that nothing about our development is so simple or black and white. Growth is inherently a fluid concept. Our expectations are based on those of society, but society constantly changes, and our perception of ourselves changes with it. A thousand different theorists can offer their own different philosophies, but at the end of the day, it’s a personal process that needn’t be graded against an artificial curve.
Rather, growth should be seen as an ongoing process, and primarily an internal one at that. Our minds are learning machines, and while their pace may slow down at points, they never stop. Rather than focus on rigid, external goalposts, or random external attributes, why not take stock in the way we’re able to process the evolving problems before us? The ways we understand our emotions and relate them to our actions? The ways we manage to forge our own destiny in both professional settings and social situations? The ways we feel like…us?
Growth can occur in any number of ways. It’s something worth striving for, but not trying to quantify with hard data or material landmarks. Learning to feel confident in one’s own skin can be just as powerful a measure of personal evolution as becoming financially and emotionally ready to bring a child into the world. And either of these achievements can come at age 23 or at age 50. And each minor bit of evolution precedes the next. No one wakes up one day to find themselves suddenly “grown.” Rather, we’re all growing, a little bit, each and every day.