As I approached my 30th birthday, my cousin assured me, “You’ll be fine.”
My dad said, “You’re not even in the game yet!”
My friend said, “It’s actually kind of nice.”
I didn’t believe any of them. Hitting my third decade was definitely going to make me feel old.
I’m hardly alone in feeling stigmatized. Like many of my peers, I grew up watching the TV show Friends and vividly recall “The One Where They All Turn 30” in which each character, on their birthday, crumbles in disgrace over their lost youth. Friends epitomized the rising cultural belief that life is best lived by the young and beautiful. Shows like New Girl, Gossip Girl, and How I Met Your Mother have since followed suit. They adhere to the Friends standard by depicting groups of independent young people who seem neither to age nor require mentors of any kind.
In this cultural milieu, some of us predictably panic at the prospect of exchanging the “good years” for the “inevitable” deterioration and obsoleteness of aging. Some of us attempt to slow down time, like those 57 percent of millennials who use anti-aging products daily, or those Americans who last year spent $400 billion on beauty products and an unprecedented $13.5 billion on aesthetic plastic surgery.
Meanwhile, the professional sphere isn’t helping. “This is the time to be young and ambitious,” Forbes wrote in an introduction to their “30 Under 30 list.” “Never before has youth been such an advantage.” Statements like these convey a twisted message to young adults: If you’re not on the list, you’ve already failed. As blogger Maude Standish wrote, “A sentiment that there are no clear paths to success has taken hold… Many a millennial I know has spent a long night pondering their misspent youth after reading the horrible torture tool that is the ‘30 under 30’ article.”
The paralyzing pressure to succeed doesn’t end with the Fortune 500. Facebook walls and Twitter feeds make it easy to “image cast,” or sculpt how our peers perceive our achievements. The constant comparison between “friends” often manifests in acute self-loathing. As blogger Tim Urban puts it, “Social media creates a world where A) what everyone else is doing is out in the open, B) most people present an inflated version of their own existence, and C) the people who chime in the most about their careers are usually those whose careers (or relationships) are going the best, while struggling people tend not to broadcast their situation. This leaves [viewers] feeling, incorrectly, like everyone else is doing really well, only adding to [their] misery.”
All told, this atmosphere of performance and comparison has produced a widespread juvenilization of our culture. Few of us look forward to growing older, and why should we? If aging promises obsolescence, then we, like Peter Pan, should resist it wholeheartedly. And we do. According to the Pew Research Center, “For the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were more likely to be living in their parents’ home,” and an estimated 30% of them will never marry. (I should note that some of the factors contributing to this statistic have more to do with economics than immaturity.)
So how to break the mold?
In the days following my 30th birthday, I reflected on whether I felt any different. I had changed, but my sense of vivacity seemed pleasantly rekindled rather than diminished. I realized that I had allowed a random milestone to control me. No longer. Finally free from the lingering, adolescent fears that told me I needed to “have it all together” (whatever that means), I could feel the stigma retreating. It was wonderful.
A series of epiphanies catalyzed this breakthrough:
First, I realized that expectations of youthful achievement are arbitrary. Both the past and present are full of age-ignorant role models who prove this. Julia Child didn’t begin cooking until her 40s. Over 40 percent of Robert Frost’s best poems were written after the poet turned 50. Leonardo Da Vinci was considered a failed artist until he completed The Last Supper at 46. Even my own father, instead of taking the normal route of retiring at 65, sold the house, lost 80 pounds, and is now laying groundwork for a new business.
The second realization packs a bigger punch, at least for Christ-followers. Christians are admonished in Scripture not to treat youth as an idol. Why? Simply, God isn’t bothered with how old we are. This God rendered Zechariah mute for doubting that he could have a son in his old age. He also told Timothy not to flinch at criticisms of his youth. He sent an 80-year-old Moses before Pharaoh and empowered the centenarian Abraham to father a new nation. Clearly, age is not a handicap for God. Consider Ephesians 4:11–16:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching.
This is excellent news for anxious agers. By this model, we have a lot to look forward to in growing older, because the more we gain through experience, the more we have to offer in service to others. By contrast, to remain a child is to remain wayward and groundless—hardly an enviable state. Why cling to youth if aging will enhance our powers of discernment? Why choose immaturity over the exquisite goal of attaining “the fullness of Christ”?
This passage poses a challenge not just to our culture but to the church at large, which, tragically, has not been spared the trending youth obsession. As Thomas E. Bergler says in his CT article, “It is likely that the juvenilization of American Christianity and the emergence of the new immature adulthood have mutually reinforced one another. We’re all adolescents now.” He argues that the church, in an admirable effort to attract younger non-believers into the faith, has unwittingly sacrificed maturity in favor of a perpetual “seeker-friendly” state.
Fortunately, Ephesians 4 illuminates steps that the church can take to bring healing to our aching culture. If the world idolizes youth, shouldn’t we laud the benefits of wisdom? If the world tells people they’re over-the-hill, shouldn’t we model the agelessness of eternal life in Christ? As a body of believers, we can invite less mature believers to grapple with doubt, faith, and calling under the mentorship and encouragement of elders. Together, we can live against the cultural grain by modeling robust marriages and hardy friendships (both of which require maturity), prayerful decision-making, and inter-generational fellowship. If we promote a positive theology of age and encourage people to set maturity—rather than endless youth—as a goal, imagine how strong our witness will be!
Personally, I feel pretty pleased to be here on the other side of 30. Of course, there are still occasional pangs of loss that creep up when I’m not paying attention, voices that tell me I missed my chance to achieve something (what, I don’t know), or that stretch marks and aching knees mean “the beginning of the end.” But I remind myself that regret is no fit state for a child of God; I have and will always have value to add to the body of Christ.
Moving on, I look forward to living fully stigma-free. How much further? Ask me again when I’m 40.
Emily Capo Sauerman is a writer, designer, and story junkie. She blogs at Learning to Whistle about creativity and the things that inspire it. She and her husband currently live in Nashville, Tennessee.
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