Touchstone: On turning 20 and our scorn of growing older

In 21 days, I will be 20 years old. The notion intermittently fills me with dread and delirium, and then again with excitement and elation. It feels as though 18 and 19 only offer mere tastes of adulthood, fleeting flavors of what life on one’s own might look like and of what it means to become one’s own person, independent from their relationships with other people. 

But there is a gnawing permanence to 20 — as though once I enter its folds, I am permanently swept up by adulthood, with no more recourse to the proximity of my childhood as a refuge. I will soon be closer in age to thirty than three, and that is terrifying to me. It feels as though something, besides my childhood, is slipping away from me, like I’m ebbing away from a particularly fruitful phase of life and tumbling down a cliff of massive responsibilities. 

This age seems to have a unique weightiness, and though my friends claim that 20 doesn’t feel all that different from 19, I know that once I cross this famed threshold nothing will ever be the same again. 

But is that such a bad thing?

We seem to reside in a youth-obsessed society. This fascination with the uninhibited joys of being young transcends place and time to leave its mark across vastly different cultures. Movies, books and poems in every language illustrate the magical once-in-a-lifetime experience that is being young, featuring the riveting highs of discovering one’s self, exploring the world and claiming the liberty to make mistakes along the way. 

When we are young, we are free, and the further we inch away from our youth, the more steeped we become in responsibilities to people other than ourselves — to parents, siblings, friends, bosses, partners and children. And so we fear ever diving into the dreaded phase that lies on the other side of childhood: adulthood. 

And this is dangerous.

The American obsession with youthfulness stretches back to the 1960s when post-war born baby boomers entered adolescence and young adulthood. To align with this new consumer base, industries and prominent brands began to employ “media and marketing tools that promoted the value of youthfulness.” 

Such messaging has important effects on consumers: “Messages about youth and age can certainly affect personhood and self-image depending on how an individual places value on the media, the culture of their environment.” 

As a result, those who have crossed a certain age threshold began to question their self-worth and value, seeing youth as synonymous with entities that are intrinsically “good” and old age as synonymous with entities that are intrinsically “bad.” Such perceptions are littered throughout media portrayals as well. For example, “Disney often portrayed elderly female characters as crazy grandmothers, hideous witches and evil mothers.” These characters “were juxtaposed with young female characters, often princesses, who represented beauty, kindness, happiness, and desirability.”

It is this predominant cultural messaging that conveys youth as the only time worth its while in life. I enjoy listening to Bollywood music, and while Bollywood songs can be incredibly profound, weaving metaphors about withering trees and blooming wildflowers, I’ve also noticed how they dwell excessively on the merits of youth over the pitfalls of middle and old age. One romantic comedy that my dad, sister and I enjoyed watching together features a song with the following translation: “We have four days of youth to live / And the rest of our days are useless.”

That seems like an incredibly sad way to live one’s life — assuming that you are constrained to a small window of time to live out your dreams, whatever they may entail; and that as you breathe more, each subsequent breath diminishes in its value. 

Certainly, the law of diminishing marginal returns cannot apply to living.

Life, at least as I have seen it, is a beautiful thing. Turbulent at times, certainly, and also rife with disconcerting unpredictability. Poets spend their careers attempting to explain it. Artists spend their careers attempting to recreate it. And doctors spend their careers attempting to save it. Science has leapt to unimaginable bounds in its attempt to preserve life: we can now access defibrillators within the comfort of our own homes and artificial-intelligence-enabled robots that are capable of performing surgery. 

Yet, when we are endowed with the privilege of more life, we run away from it. We conceal its markers on our skin with pounds of makeup, those lines by our mouths that speak of moments that we have laughed from the pits of our stomach and those burrows that tell of times when we have sobbed tears from the hidden hollows of our souls. 

How haunting is it that we seek remedies for aging when in fact to grow older is an emblem of the same life that we yearn so endlessly to preserve?

I don’t know what turning 20 will mean for me. And truthfully, I am terrified. I recognize that I am entering a decade fraught with consecutive milestones: graduating college, building my career, carving out my identity and forming new relationships. 

I do mourn for the childhood I leave behind: for the innocence of girlhood that I will never know again, of days when I dreamed of Prince Charmings and white horses who never came. 

I know that to become the woman I am meant to be, I will have to bid adieu to the girl in me. I know that as I take on more responsibilities, even those as mundane as filing my own taxes (ew), I am donning layers of experience that will transform me from the girl I have known myself to be.

But this goodbye is a wonderful thing because I get to grow older. I get to make mistakes, I get to have my heart broken, and I get to live through countless nights wondering when day will break.

20 is a touchstone that marks the rest of my life. The road ahead is not easy; it is fraught with unforeseen obstacles and the certainty of failure.

I get to tread it. And I am so lucky. 

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternate Thursdays.

Advikaa Anand | Opinion Managing Editor

Advikaa Anand is a Trinity sophomore and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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