CENIE · 22 May 2023

Celebrating one's birthday: constraint or opportunity?

Celebrating one's birthday is one of those individual processes that all, absolutely all people experience, but which we experience as a unique and completely personal phenomenon. That is to say, if ageing is social, the process of growing old is an individual, biological, but also psychological process, which we sometimes insist on experiencing from the threshold of distance from others, in a certain isolation and feeling somewhat misunderstood. We turn it into a process of introversion and, on occasions, we find it difficult to share some of the issues that we associate with age and that we consider excessively personal.

It's not always easy to turn a year older, even though, as we always say around here, it is the only option that suits us -especially if we bear in mind that it is the only alternative to dying. It is so hard for us to turn 40 that the concepts of "mid-life crisis" or " 50s crisis" are common references, a kind of evil of all (or almost all) and have to do with reflective processes, undoubtedly, but also with that ageism that we have always applied to others (the old age of others) and that, more or less suddenly, we began to apply to ourselves as well. 

To cope with it, we make jokes that sometimes have to do with motorbikes, convertibles and that refer to crazy behaviour that we don't consider (again, ageism on top of everything else) "typical of the age we are". 

The crises of the 30s, 40s and 50s are well known, but we could mention others; it seems that all ages ending in "zero" (perhaps with the exception of 10) make us go through a kind of micro-trauma that each person faces in a very personal, unique and exclusive way and that, in general terms, tends to be very similar to the one used by (almost) everyone else who went through the same "traumatic" process of turning one year older. 

All of us, at some point in our life (or moments), find it difficult to accept the passing of age and we do not always recognise ourselves in the age we have reached. This is why we sometimes call for changes on the threshold of old age: we have certain ideas about the behaviours and ways of feeling associated with what we understand old age to be that do not correspond at all to how we feel and wish to behave when we reach this stage.

A few days ago I was talking to a lady who had just turned 61 (an old lady or a young lady, because all ages are relative and it depends on who you ask) about the "patilargo child" in the room, about to turn 15. He was no longer a child, although in the memory of all those present he was still a beautiful and adorable baby who had little (nothing) to do with the lanky, gangly teenager who had the same name. In that conversation, so often referred to as "it seems incredible how time goes by", we came to the conclusion that the last 13, 14, 15 years had passed not only for the precious baby, but also for the rest of us who were in the conversation. Time passes, but we find it easier to see it in others than in ourselves. Because our identity takes precedence over our age. People our age are much older than we are ourselves. 

I found the reflection of this young lady very revealing, who referred to how, on listening to a programme in which some people talked about their ancestors (the parents of the interviewees), she realised that they were referring to people of her generation. In other words: "these guys were not talking about my parents' generation, they were talking about my generation. Hearing them speak, without thinking, I identified with them, but I realised that they would actually be my children's age". This, which sounds so simple, is not so simple in our imagination. It was not that my interlocutor had forgotten her age, not at all: it was that she had gone from being the protagonist, identifying with those people who spoke of her ancestors, to being "the ancestor". She had gone from being the active subject (the speaker) to being the "object" being talked about. 

Another example, very different and much sadder, is when recently, someone who had just lost his father said to me "as well as missing him, you realise that the next to die is you". Here another variable comes into play, irresolvably associated with age: the perception of one's own mortality. Perhaps the question is much deeper and should be explored further in another post. 

Turning one's age is undoubtedly difficult. It means, among other things, leaving an age to which we have become accustomed and facing a new, unknown age. After having spent 365 days learning to be a certain age, suddenly (or as if) you are a different age. Moreover, we tend to accompany our birthday with a process of reflection, of introspection, which does not always help us: we focus on what we have not done, or, as an acquaintance recently told me, on all the things we will no longer be able to do. 

I was surprised by this reflection, because I asked him about those things that, at 44 years of age, he felt he could no longer do. All he told me were things that he had never really wanted to do, or that he did not do out of sheer laziness. In other words, if he were 20 years younger, he would postpone these "desired activities" (going bungee jumping, climbing Everest, learning to play the piano) to the future, only to discover that, even if he lived another life, they were activities that he did not want to do. 

I do not mean by these words to deny the obvious; of course there are activities that we will no longer be able to do. My question is whether we cannot do certain things (those that cause us so much regret) because of our age or because we don't want to. I understand that nothing guarantees the success of an activity and that at my age I could no longer do figure skating with triple spins. But the truth is that I couldn't either when I was 15 and that I was just as scared then as I am now. I am convinced that we have time to start doing new activities, to learn and challenge ourselves no matter how old we are. And that sometimes we hide behind our age to not dare to face the unknown. 

In fact, we face the unknown more often than we think. And we face many more challenges than we think we are capable of facing. Turning one's age means leaving behind ages that we had mastered, with their mysteries and challenges, of course. But there is an advantage that comes with us, along the way. The past 365 days have been days of learning, of experience. Turning years old also allows us to get to know ourselves better, to know our limits and even to learn to live with ourselves. And this learning may not be the desired guarantee of success in the face of new challenges, but it does offer us the opportunity to know what we want to do with these new 365 days ahead of us. And if we don't know, if we haven't learned to live well with ourselves, if we don't know yet, maybe it's time to start thinking about it. And we can make that decision at any time, regardless of our age. Right now, for example.


Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal