My best friend, Cate, turned 30 today, and suddenly my thirties seem less intimidating. It has reminded me that we don’t change on our birthdays, no matter how much we use them as milestones. On each birthday, the only thing that feels different from the day before or after is my excitement about cake and a party! My mother was an expert on creating special birthdays, without fail, and making amazing birthday cakes, so birthdays have always been the cause of much excitement in my life. But we don’t change our character noticeably when we become a year older because a year is, obviously, spread out over a year, a little bit each day. It is incremental, gradual, and thus gentle. In addition to this, it is not merely the passage of time that changes us, it is the experiences within that time – I learnt and grew more in the few weeks following my mother’s death then I had in the entire year before.
When you are younger, or older, and depending on which country you are in at the time, these milestones have legal ramifications too, which give them added weight. At 16 you can have sex and buy cigarettes; at 18 you can drink and drive a car (what genius decided that putting those together was a good idea?), and at 21 you can get married without needing the consent of a parent or guardian. Somewhere between 60 and 65, depending on your sex, you can retire and draw a pension. Of course this often has no direct effect on behaviour, particularly in relation to cigarettes and alcohol, but it sets out society’s current expectations of the rate at which we mature.
30 has no legalities attached to it, yet is without a doubt psychologically significant for me at the moment. I suppose these things tend to gain importance as they approach, then quickly fade into insignificance once they are past, and we turn our attention to the next hurdle. In my head I have, for the past few years, cast myself as ‘nearly 30’ rather than as ‘in my 20’s’, which now that my 20s are nearly their end seems something of a waste.
What does age really matter? There are many quotes to turn to, such as:
“Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.” (Don Marquis)
“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” (Abraham Lincoln)
“Maturity has more to do with what types of experiences you’ve had, and what you’ve learned from them, and less to do with how many birthdays you’ve celebrated.”
What they tell us is what we already know: that what really matters is not how many years we have lived, but how fully we have lived those years. There is a huge difference, of course, between saying that, or appreciating a well-written quote on it, and really feeling it. Interestingly, when I began writing this I was feeling quite focused on the importance of turning 30, but through the process of thought-writing I have come to entirely the opposite conclusion. We shouldn’t need fixed measurements to judge ourselves against collective standards – we should enjoy the cake, greetings, party and presents, and look forward to another year full of adventure ahead. If you have to count something, count adventures!