The case for freeing yourself from acting your age… any age.
What is a normal life? It’s the thing defined by all these phrases:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“C’mon, you’re only young once!”
“So when are you going to settle down?”
“People your age are usually having kids.”
“Do you have a career plan?”
“You’re still renting?”
“Oh, grow up.”
“Total mid-life crisis, am I right?”
“What are your retirement plans?”
“Typical old codger.”
“Uh-oh, senior moment!”
“Well, I guess it was just his time.”
Just for the record, screw all of the above. We’re going to talk about liberating yourself from those phrases and everything they imply.
We have this idea in our culture, deeply ingrained, something nobody ever has to explain to us because we see the shape of it in a million offhand lines like the ones above. It’s this notion of a life arc, a set structure that takes us from childhood to death via education, youthful rebellion, career, marriage, family, retirement, decline, and then a nice dignified heart attack or something. It’s intrinsic to our understanding of how people exist in the world, to the point where if someone fails to map to this model, we’ll give them a hard time about it. It’s our deep-rooted sense of normal, of average, of a typical, decently admirable life.
That would be more defensible if this model had, like, any relationship to reality whatsoever. In practice, it’s more like trying to live according to a script. A really old script at that. Ask yourself: would you consider it reasonable to criticize people for not following a normal life path, where they rediscover the love of their life, but their lover is married to someone else, then ultimately they sacrifice that love for the greater good before going off with a corrupt cop to fight Nazis? Because the “life arc” script is about as realistic as that one, and has less memorable dialogue.
Let’s just go down the the “normal” life path and list how many people it abjectly fails to describe, how many people don’t get to be considered normal. First and most obviously, there’s everyone who dies before “their time”. Every car accident, every death on the job or on duty, every suicide, every surprise cancer, every way a human being can die before their 70s or so. The younger you die, the more likely it is to make the news, that’s how far off-script you are.
Speaking of young, the script for “normal” starts in childhood. As a little kid, you are expected to be innocent and naive, regardless of the facts on the ground, and you have to be laying the groundwork for your future adulthood. Don’t have a stable family to coddle and support you? Had to go to work real young? Want to be something other than a nice, productive cog in society’s machine? Expect to spend a lot of time in detention for messing with the script. You will frequently be told to “straighten up and fly right”, a line written into the script in 1943 after a popular song of the era, and still in use today because did you think I was kidding about how old this script is?
There is an assigned time for acting out and making trouble, and it is approximately ages 15-25. During this window, you may drink too much, experiment sexually, mess with drugs a bit, get in fights, become politically radicalized, and generally challenge the status quo, and this will be considered typical youthful exuberance. (Note: non-white, non-straight folks are substantially more likely to be arrested for any of the above, which will constitute script violation.) Failure to cease doing these things by age thirty is considered immature, even the ones that are fun, harmless, or actually useful. Sorry, but if you’re still partying or eating vegan after the designated window, you’re violating the script and it is socially acceptable to openly mock your choices and values.
Can’t get a job after completing your education? Not only are you out of the set of “normal”, but people will actually get paid for writing editorials about how not starting a career and getting married makes you despicable. You’re a “failure to launch” or a “manchild” or just plain lazy and worthless. You’ll be told you majored in the wrong things, or you’re spoiled and soft, or you just lack character. Funny how when the economy goes south, millions more people suddenly develop a lack of character, but I guess it’s easier to believe that than to deviate from the script.
Speaking of the word career, let’s talk about that for a second. You’re off-script if you don’t have an old-fashioned career arc, and let me take a second to explain what that phrase even means. When I tell younger folks that my parents expected to hold one job for a long time, with regular raises and promotions and a pension, they laugh. They think I’m kidding. And yet we still ask people where they’re at in their career, as though that question still had meaning, because that question is part of the script. If you’re not shackling yourself to something you hate for most of your waking hours for decades at a time, people will openly ask what’s wrong with you. That’s disturbing on so very many levels…
Maybe you didn’t have kids, or had them earlier or later than the script says you should. Maybe you didn’t get married. Maybe you’re so far off-script that it’s illegal for you to get married or have kids, if you know what I mean and I think you do. You will be judged, sneered at, called selfish or irresponsible or any number of other things, because the most personal things in your life fail to fit the very specific dictates of the script.
Lastly, the life arc script erases everyone who doesn’t, or more often can’t, retire with a gold watch and a pension, to enjoy 10-20 years of golf, bingo, and increasingly thick glasses. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable in American politics to suggest breaking the societal compact that is Social Security, but now people blithely talk about eliminating the promise of a dignified retirement for ordinary working folks. Dignified retirement just isn’t something our society still does, is the implication. Nobody gets the gold watch any more, if that’s even what anyone really wants, or ever wanted. And yet it’s still part of the script. People my age will be asked if we’ve started saving for our retirement yet, and all I personally can ever do is snort “Saving what?”
To sum up, every time someone talks about a “typical” or “average” life, they’re referring to a script that eliminates, conservatively, 98% of people actually living in society. This means that every time we make assumptions based on your normal, average, everyday person’s life arc, we are 98% likely to be wrong. We would literally be less wrong if we assumed that everyone is gay.
Yet we cling to these ideas. We pretend they have validity, that a “quarter-life crisis” is something normal to expect, that people have careers with predictable paths, that everyone’s experience must be basically like the people on TV. And then we have the brass cojones to wonder why we don’t understand the world better. We subconsciously buy into a concept with less predictive value than a newspaper horoscope, and we blame the world when it doesn’t fit our preconceptions. And that’s what we have to free ourselves from.
If you’re reading this, odds are you’re off-script somewhere. You’re not doing what you’re supposed to, or you haven’t done in the past, or you won’t do in the future. Stop thinking that’s a failure or a mistake on your part. When the data fails to fit the theory, it is always and only the theory that’s wrong. You are the data. Stop trying to tweak yourself to fit the narrative like a politician with an inconvenient set of facts. You don’t owe the theory, the narrative, the script a single thing. Your life is your own, to write yourself; free yourself from the idea that you have to fit a story outline that never worked in the first place. You owe nobody an apology for who you are or how you live, no matter your age. Life is short and fast-moving and unpredictable, and you don’t have time to waste pretending that’s not the case.
Photo—Joshua Norton, aka Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.