Ah, the first few days of a new year. A time when gyms are crowded, people are optimistic, and we all silently wonder if things will really, actually, *seriously* be different this time around.
Considering that January 1st doesn’t really change much of anything — most people aren’t starting a new job, moving to a new city, or otherwise expecting a major modification to their life — our enthusiasm for each Gregorian uptick is almost surprising. Besides being thrilled that (once again) the world didn’t end as predicted, what is it about the New Year that excites us over and over?
I think it may be that as adults, January 1st is one of the few designated dates when we feel like reinvention is acceptable. The new year is an opportunity to look back and clear out the mental or actual clutter, and for a moment, we get to “shift” some kinetic equilibrium.
Growing up, most of us didn’t have to orchestrate change — it sort of just happened. We were always facing a transition, whether from one grade to the next, high school to college, college to a first job. There were milestones that meant new and exciting things, like getting a driver’s license, being able to vote, or getting into bars (with your real ID). Each step encouraged us to shed old patterns and do things differently.
As adults, this doesn’t happen quite so naturally. If we don’t actively make things change, it’s not long before days, weeks, or years tick by, and we wind up spending extended periods of time running in place. The New Year is a wake-up call for many people — 365 days, and what do I have to show for it? We look back and remember how things were a year ago, and look around to see how they are now. Sometimes that’s scary, sometimes it’s uplifting.
The older I get, though, I’ve noticed the less optimism that people have about the idea of transformation. The term New Year’s resolution acquires a humorous clang, and announcing a decision to reshape your life will garner more smirks than real encouragement. Given that part of this cynicism is based on the experience of years prior, i.e. a decade where ambitions went unrealized, at some point that doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The sentiment that it’s pointless to even try is a far cry from the lofty speeches given to younger generations, where they are told to go out and take on the world. Anything is possible, every graduation speaker ever will say. If you can dream it, you can achieve it.
…And all that quotable, uplifting crap.
We tell young folks that they can do anything if they make the effort, never, “Look kids, you’re going to go to college, take some classes, pick a major, and then get a 9-5 and watch the years fly by just like everyone else.”
Even though we know that 99.9% of them will just lead ordinary lives, we don’t say that. Plus, if things go wrong, we’re quick to express that it’s not personal, or a sign of incompetence. Keep trying! We say. You have the rest of you life ahead of you.
Somewhere later down the line, that go-get-’em rug gets yanked aside, replaced with the sentiment that everyone needs to just suck it up and be “realistic” about their options. Your life won’t be great. You’re not doing anything special. Drink your coffee, hate your wife, and be a responsible member of society. To some degree, it’s good advice — Adults have kids and a mortgage and other obligations that necessitate some stability. Our lives will be standard in many ways, and dropping everything to start a smoothie shop on the California coast-side is not a sound plan.
Regardless, being “too old” is just about the worst reason on the planet to refrain from trying to do something unique, and it’s the #1 concern that stops people at 25, 35, or 40. Why does it become unacceptable to see life as full of options?
I’ve seen the irrelevant yet ill-fated perception of age and new ventures first-hand:
My mother, a fairly accomplished artist, didn’t start working until ~10 years ago, around the time my brother and I left the nest. While her career trajectory was unusual (she was in her mid 40′s and had no formal training), it kills me that every article about her marvels over the fact that she didn’t “do” anything until later in life. Authors make it sound like starting a new career as a 40-something woman is the craziest thing since canned meat. Or, like she survived some horrible disease and should be grateful to come out alive on the other side.
Unfortunately, I think the backhanded compliments and focus on her elder status affects how my mother views herself professionally, too. After a particularly prominent magazine spread, people from all over the country began emailing her for advice on their own projects. She looked at me wide-eyed one afternoon and said, “What do I know?”
Whereas a young person would be glowing with pride at what they’d accomplished in a few short years, she hesitates to embrace it or even act like it’s real.
Our conversations go like this:
Her: “Honey, I’m so proud of you.”
Me: “Honey, I’m so proud of you, too.”
Her: “Don’t be silly. I’m just an old woman. Oh — hold on, there’s a call on the other line I should probably answer.” (Clicks over, pause, clicks back)
Me: “Who was it?”
Her: “Oh. Um. Paula Deen.”
Me: “Wait…what!? Like the TV show, sausage selling, can’t check-out-a-grocery-store-without-seeing-her-face Paula Deen?”
Her: “Uh-huh. She’s coming over tomorrow to talk about doing a project together.”
Her: “What do you think I should make your dad for dinner?”
Her humility is endearing, but I wish she saw her achievements with some of the enthusiasm and enchantment of a younger artist. I just want to grab her and squeeze her and shake her and say, “Who CARES that you are 55, you are AWESOME.”
Maybe sometimes age is just an excuse, and the reality is that we don’t have the desire, energy, or motivation to tackle new beasts at 45. But, I suspect some hesitation derives from fear of being called out, and the socially instilled notion that the deal is done, time is up, your life is your life so throw in the towel. Instead of only encouraging young folks to see the spectrum of options, however, it’d be great if we could urge all people to view their upcoming years in this regard.
So — Cheers to the New Year. Go forth and multiply, no matter what your age.