A few days ago, I was half-listening to NPR's Morning Edition as I drove to the train station to go to work... well, actually, I guess I was only one-third listening to it, as I was aware that they were interviewing some author but I couldn't tell you his name or the title of his book, or really anything at all about the interview itself. Except for one idea that for some reason jumped up and grabbed me by the arm.
This mysterious, anonymous author said something about his belief that everyone has an internal age, a time in their life when they are their "most authentic self." I remember him saying his own clock was set somewhere between 47 and 53 years old. Now, I don't know what he was actually getting at because of that "only one-third listening" thing. And it's kind of a confusing concept anyway. Does he mean that we have an actual chronological age at which our inherent personality traits and maturity levels "catch up" with the calendar and with society's expectations of how a person that age is supposed to feel and act? Or does he mean we're mentally stuck at a certain age regardless of our calendar age? Are those definitions really just the same thing and I'm parsing this too much? Probably.
In any event, I was thinking about this internal clock/authentic self thing over the weekend, wondering what it means and, of course, what my own internal clock might be set for. I know of at least one reader of this blog who would say that I've been going on 50-something for decades now (he's told me so a number of times), and my mother has long maintained I was a 35 years old by the time I was seven. I understand why people say things like that. It's because I tend to be overly serious, and I often express a fairly sour view of the world for a (relatively) young man. But honestly, I don't see myself as psychologically middle-aged, in spite of what my hair- and waistlines are telling me. I don't think my "authentic self" is 50 years old, or even 35. I'd say the real me is somewhere between 15 and 25.
I'm not speaking from nostalgia for bygone innocence or looking at my youth through rose-tinted glasses and thinking I was happier then than now, because I haven't forgotten that I went through some rough times during that decade. But that was the period when my tastes and interests pretty well solidified (they've not changed a whole lot since then), and it was when I had the clearest idea of what I wanted to do with my life and who I wanted to be. My ambitions were the most coherent they've ever been (which probably isn't saying much, but hey, everything's relative), and I hadn't yet begun to feel diminished through age and compromise and obligation. If that's not the definition of authentic self, then I really don't know what it is.
The sad thing is that my authentic 15-to-25-year-old self didn't realize that he was living through the peak of so many aspects of his character. He always assumed that he -- I -- would become more confident as I got older, that things would become, if not easier then at least more clearly defined. It hasn't quite worked that way, though. I won't bore you all with some whiny confessional, but I will say that most of the time I feel like I've become less certain and more fragile with age, rather than stronger. Maybe that's why I have so much sympathy for child actors, because I, too, feel like I peaked at the very beginning of my adult life and have been struggling ever since to figure out what to do with myself...