You Don’t Look It: Age, Achievement, and The Perception of Time

“You’re 29? You look so much younger!” one of the teenagers in my taekwondo class exclaims, incredulous. (As I’ve discussed before, more kids get into martial arts at a younger age in Asia. Whenever I train in the western world, I’m always one of the youngest, but back here in Manila, I always feel like their token geezer.)

We live in a world where we are judged by numbers. We are obsessed with stats—the number of miles we ran or biked, our waistline, the number of wrinkles on our faces, our credit score, the number of exes, how many times we get a retweet—the list goes on. There’s probably a smartphone app to track each one of them.

These are numbers we can improve upon, manipulate, transform. But there’s one that is universal and irreversible: birthdays. The passage of time. The number of candles on a cake that signals another 365 days have gone by.

From my experience, it’s considered rude to ask someone’s age in America. In Asia, people can ask quite directly, though it’s a question I believe people secretly don’t like once they hit 25. The question, “How old are you?” almost becomes accusatory, and the answer is usually followed up with “Do I look it?”

Consider some of the articles that have recently had so much discussion. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “The Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider, and to a lesser, but no less important, extent, “Friends of a Certain Age” by Alex Williams. Among obvious issues the articles are primarily about, such as feminism, work values, etc., lie a crucial factor that unwittingly drives our questions of achievement and meaning: time, and whether we have enough of it to do all that we, in our limited existence in the world, desire to do.

We feel that time is a resource we are constantly running out of, and then comes the inevitable question we ask ourselves: “What have you got to show for it?” Where is the book you’ve promised yourself you were going to write? Have you gone on that big trip you said you would? Did you learn that second language, get that graduate degree, make that movie? Why are you single, separated, or divorced?

Perhaps some of us go through time hoping we can pause it. Please, hold off until I catch up. There are way too many decisions to make, hurdles to overcome, and relationships to manage to be able to check things off of our personal bucket lists. But time is like a cab ride; the meter keeps going until your journey is over.

Time impacts everything we sense. In The New Yorker’s profile of neuroscientist David Eagleman, who studies time perception and synesthesia, he says:

“But the interesting thing about time is that there is no spot. It’s a distributed property. It’s metasensory; it rides on top of all the [other senses].”

With regards to birthdays, it seems that age does affect our perception of time. Burkhard Bilger, who wrote Eagleman’s profile, elaborates in the article:

“One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, [Eagleman] explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”

Many people try to cheat time by compromising. The hear the ringing of what I’ve heard called, rather amusingly, “marriage-o-clock,” according to Kate Bolick of The Atlantic. They set themselves a deadline for getting married and having kids. Or they choose and stay with jobs they secretly don’t love. The older we get, the less options we supposedly have, and no one wants to feel like they didn’t “make it” and that their time was a waste.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been guilty of  judging myself for what I have done in the time I was allotted. In my mental timeline of my slowly-disappearing twenties, I can narrate the past decade by the things I have achieved, such as exhibitions, degrees, residencies, personal projects, travel, and friendships I’ve made and developed. I’ve seen them as significant milestones, because each has provided me with a type of personal growth that I think is unachievable if I tried to live otherwise. I suppose that subconsciously, I do this partly in the hopes that I’ll never have to lie or feel embarrassed about my age, as the months slowly encroach into my thirtieth year, when I will ask myself whether I made excellent use of the time I had and if I feel the need to withhold the year of my birthday.

So back to my interrogation. “How long have you been doing taekwondo?” presses my gregarious young friend.

“Since I was thirteen.”

“Really? But you’re still good!”

Oh, bless you, my child. I think.

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