A couple of years ago, I applied to be a commissioner to our denomination’s General Assembly. After glancing at the essay questions, I went back to the top of the form to fill out the easy stuff: Name… Address… Phone… Email… Gender… Ethnicity… Age…
The “Age” line had several ranges to choose from. I began scanning the numbers with some smugness—This will be my ace in the hole! They’re always looking for young people to go to these things—until I realized which box I would need to check at age 37:
When did that happen?
When did I get old enough to be lumped in with people who were one liturgical year away from retirement?
On top of it all was a panicked lament: Why, dear God, why?
For years, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has made a big deal about the so-called “seven percent.” That’s the percentage of PCUSA clergy under the age of 40. Last I checked, the actual number is closer to 15%, but still. A very small number. An elite group. A group that many people look to for wisdom, ideas, and hope for the sometimes perplexing task of reaching out to young adults.
I write this article at age 39½. In just a few months, I will age out of the 7% (and the Young Clergy Women, for that matter). All of this has me pondering what it means to be young; and what it means to be no longer young but certainly not old; and what these categories offer that’s helpful, and what about them is limiting.
Yes, that’s all deep philosophical work. But I’m also just plain freaking out about turning 40. It’s not about the vanity stuff, though I certainly see more lines around my eyes lately, and I’m learning to accept that despite a new running practice, these few extra pounds are not going away without some serious intention on my part.
No, it’s more the awareness of the relentlessness of time—the realization that, in the words of singer-songwriter David Wilcox, “All the paths are getting shorter in the far end, because we only have so many steps to take. We only have so much time.” This statement comes in an introduction to the song “Hold It Up to the Light,” which is a riff on the Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled. Standing on the threshold of 40, I’m realizing just how many roads I’m unlikely to travel. I grieve some of these losses. That trip to Guatemala for three weeks of Spanish language immersion? Hard to pull off with three kids and a mortgage. Maybe when the nest is empty.
Other times, the slow diminishing of options is freeing—we’ve all seen the studies about how paralyzing it can be to have too many choices. It’s clarifying to have fewer options. I am probably not going to get that PhD in preaching. Of course I still could. There’s plenty of time for it. It’s just that the trajectory of my life is going in another good direction.
But where, exactly? I read and hear news stories about people my age doing truly amazing stuff, and realize that they’re not being described as precocious wunderkinden, catapulting to the top of their fields. They’re just… adult people, doing stuff. Accomplishing things. And I fret: Have I used the time well that I’ve been given? To put it theologically, have I been a good steward of my young adulthood? My young adult body? My young adult mind? (Nouns don’t come as easily as they used to, but I blame the kids more than my age.)
As young adults, many of us, myself included, looked at a whole life ahead of us and thought, I can do anything. I was ready to take the world by storm, solve big social problems, make a profound difference. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life thus far, but my grand plans are more tempered: maybe I won’t be setting the world on fire after all. Maybe I will not develop some brand-new society-changing idea, or receive a MacArthur genius grant or deliver a TED talk. But I do make a difference in my family and community.
A friend and I have often griped about what we called the “Oprah-fication” of the women’s aging process. Oprah knows her audience and her readership—predominantly middle-aged women—and tailors her message accordingly: Life begins at 40! Or 50! Or Higher! I am sure that women of a certain age, some of whom suppressed their own needs and desires to support their husbands or raise their kids, find that message empowering. We do live in a culture that worships youth, in which the old commercial tells us not to grow old gracefully, but to fight it every step of the way.
But this age stuff is complicated: We’re also in a culture of “pay your dues; bide your time; wait to be authorized; wisdom is the domain of age.” What does “life begins at 40” mean for a 25 year old? That she’s deficient in some way? Not good enough? Why do we need to wait to be awesome? Just last year, Oprah’s magazine had a blunt recommendation: don’t even bother reading a memoir by anyone who hasn’t even hit age 30. Really, Oprah? Really????
Given all the fabulous women I know who are older than me, I’m excited for the next chapter of my life. But as I prepare to celebrate 40, my birthday wish is that all ages will be honored. Life doesn’t begin at 40. Life can begin whenever you decide it should begin. I’m not saying that every age is equally great. I’m saying that every age is uniquely great.
As a young adult pastor, I was sought after partly for what I represented: a demographic group—an inside track to the young adult “market.” Some years ago, I was asked to serve on a presbytery committee. Fresh from maternity leave, I arrived at my first meeting, 15 minutes late, wheeling my newborn daughter into the room where several gray-haired men sat. I parked the stroller by the conference table, plopped into a chair, and quipped, “Your diversity’s arrived!” But now, as I prepare to leave young adulthood behind, it’s not about what I represent. It’s just about me now. My ideas. My experiences.
The other day I was telling an elder in our church about a weekend with my kids in which everything just clicked. And I said at the end, “What could be better?” He responded, “The answer to that is always ‘Nothing.’ Nothing could be better.” This is a man who just celebrated age 50 with a tattoo and a two-week pilgrimage to Cooperstown and other beloved baseball sites, so I’ve decided that his comment is good advice for this aging stuff too.
At 30, nothing could be better than being 30. At 40, nothing could be better than being 40. At 50, nothing could be better than being 50.
Nothing could be better. Full stop.