Rachel McAlpine, who blogs at Write Into Life, recently posted about the challenge of adjusting her identity as she ages. She writes,
“I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony. But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks ‘Old lady! Old lady!’”
We typically achieve some sense of identity in adolescence, but we continue to work on the project of constructing an identity throughout life. New experiences–completing school, starting a career, choosing a life partner–impact our sense of who we are, so we are constantly tweaking the identity we built, twisting knobs as if we were an old-time radio that needs constant adjustment to get a clear signal. We just get the station tuned in, then something else happens and we start the process all over again. As Rachel mentions, the grey hair and wrinkles that show up when we look in the mirror are among the things that call for identity recalibration. Another is retirement. Still another is some body part or system suddenly balking rather than proceeding through its paces as we’re accustomed to it doing. So our previous self description–“youthful-looking,” “worker,” “healthy”–no longer fits, and we have to figure out again who we are.
It’s common for people past midlife to have trouble reconciling their advancing chronological age or their timeworn appearance with an inner feeling that they ae still youthful. Rachel is no exception to this:
“Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.”
I’ve had the same disparity. Reflecting on her post, I realized that this discrepancy between my subjective sense of my age and my objective chronological age isn’t always present, but comes and goes. Sometimes I feel much younger than my age–like a teenager or even a child, for instance. Other times I feel every bit the 69-year-old I am.
Thinking about this fluctuation further, it seems to me that what has happened is not that I discarded previous identities when I adjusted to new realities in my life, but instead that I shuffled them further down in the deck. They are still there, ready to be dealt again as circumstances warrant. Thus, when I went to my high school reunion last year, the card that I played was my adolescent self. When I build Legos with my grandkids or have an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, the child in me comes out. When I read a reference book or scholarly article, I’m a college student again, thirsty for knowledge. The young adult wanting to make a mark on the world is still there, as is the thirty-something who was confident in his abilities and the middle-aged man who lost his way for a few years.
Somehow, all these different versions of me dovetail together. Confusing as it can sometimes be, on the whole it has been an improvement to have my community of selves grow larger and larger. I wouldn’t want to be just the limited self I was as an adolescent, proud as I was back then in the identity I had built.
So don’t be concerned when you don’t feel your age or lament when your old identity no longer fits who you are becoming. Instead, appreciate the opportunity to add another self to your collection. Welcome the new you to the family!