How to Stay Young Forever
Stop worshipping in the house of shame and embrace the religion of big mistakes.
Minervas (1947) by Clarence Holbrook Carter
I'm turning 34 in a few weeks. I keep having thoughts about how I missed being young. I'll be doing something and think about how I missed my chance to be desirable or free.
Some of this is easy to explain to myself. My sibling died suddenly when I was 20, and I spent a lot of my twenties taking care of family while gaining some small independence. I didn't pursue any creative outlets seriously. I have a lot of body image and self-esteem issues, so I assumed that other people, men specifically, would be repulsed by my weight and social skills.
It's not that I spent the whole time moping, I made good friends, had some experiences, but if I'm being honest with myself I spent a lot of time being ruled by laziness and fear. I'm in a career I don't care about, with a decade old unfinished writing project. I've resigned myself to being alone, but I'm still scared of feeling resigned to my whole life. I feel like I missed my chance at a better life, and that somehow if I had been smarter when I was young, I could have escaped into something better.
These thoughts come on suddenly, and generally leave me in tears. I'm not sure how to get around this.
I Squandered My Youth
You’re still young. Somehow it never helps to tell young people that, because they think you’re too old to know the difference. Think about that: All you get from aging past 35, in our confused culture’s eyes, is the inability to discern fact from fiction, fantasy from reality, youth from age. No wonder no one wants to get older!
Here’s the truth that no one tells you: Not only do you have the entire stretch of your life to inch closer and closer to joy, but something huge shifts after you’ve fully reckoned with your waves of despair and bewilderment around your rapidly advancing age – and by “reckoned with” I mean faced head on, struggled to accept, wrestled to the ground, dragged around with you for months, ate, metabolized, and sweated out. Once you’ve allowed your age to humble and humiliate you, a piece of you grows up permanently – which also means that a piece of you stays permanently young. Suddenly, you can see the glorious, delicious world through clear eyes for the first time.
You know it’s happened because you’re having a conversation with someone and you think, “I know exactly what I’m talking about, but I don’t have to prove it anymore.” You look in the mirror and you think, “Ew,” but then, right after that, you think, “Nah, I look pretty juicy, actually. I’m doing alright.” You go for a walk around the neighborhood and even though you’re not fantastically hot and you can’t remember the last time you brushed your hair, it just feels good to be alive. The clouds are perfect today, puffy and drifting lazily and sparkling in the sunlight. The orange blossoms are rich with sweet scent. The bees are back and they’re shoving their entire heads into those blossoms because they’re so happy to see them.
And then everyone around you looks and sounds a little better, too. You can see each person’s unique glow. It’s not about hotness any more. It’s about flair, sparkle, sneaky wit, a kind of delightful awkwardness, a fumbling form of seduction. When someone has a sense of humor about themselves, that’s what draws you in – not their smooth moves or their rock-hard whatevers. What you notice now is the people who understand that life is absurd but their time isn’t up yet, so might as well take a big bite out of the ass of life while it’s still right there in your face.
Maybe you get a little dirtier after you reckon with aging and mortality, too! I don’t know. I’m slightly old, sure, but I’m also pretty young, because I just ate an apple and now I’m drinking water and walking on my treadmill desk while I type. I didn’t say it was easy to feel good! But the older you get, the more important it is to worship at the temple of forgiveness. Here’s our daily prayer:
I’m a regular mortal, not a superhero. The big mistakes I’ve made only make me more lovable, more humble, more sensitive to the trials of others. Today, instead of beating myself up, I’ll celebrate who I am, in all of my delightful imperfections. I have love to give, and I have plenty of time left. My job is to enjoy this day.
Right now, you’re projecting your regrets onto the future. No wonder you feel old! Nothing makes you feel older than shame. It’s the church where the pastor stands up and tells you that you have to pay for your sins, pay for your mistakes, do penance for not being as perfect as God.
In the good church, where the gods themselves are imperfect, they focus on acceptance instead. Because it’s fine to accept that you might be alone, or that you might never achieve recognition for the creative outlets you pursue, or that you might never feel quite as desirable or as free as you’d like. It’s realistic to acknowledge that sometimes, you don’t get what you want, and then things go horribly wrong on top of that.
That’s all the more reason why it’s so important to stay open to the possibility that you might find love, and you might achieve some recognition for your work, and you might feel a million times more desirable and more free than you ever imagined you could. Living in the present and focusing on enjoying each day tend to make these things more possible.
Savoring each day also means refusing to punish yourself for your unfinished writing project. (Lord knows, I have a ton of those.) Start a new writing project instead. Then start another one. Finish some, abandon others — none of this reflects badly on you. It’s just how the creative process works: You have fun and make mistakes, over and over. Learn to enjoy the work itself and you’ll get shit done, full stop.
And when a wave of melancholy hits you and you think, “If I had been smarter, I could have escaped into something better,” you have to sit with that feeling and let it wash over you. Don’t try to fix it or hate yourself for it. Just feel your sadness. Cry. Write a terrible poem or song about what an irredeemable cob nobbler you are. I’m not kidding. Notice how you blame yourself for everything, including the fact that you’re taking time to feel some feelings (because in your mind, only a loser would do that).
Notice how you talk to yourself. Notice how you punish yourself. Notice how even looking at your writing project makes you feel guilty. That project has become a sick Bible that tells you, “Creativity will only bring you pain and humiliation.”
Throw that Bible out the window, go for a walk, and vow not to shame yourself for the rest of the day. Focus on the things you love. Open your eyes to the people around you. Notice their flair, their odd sparkle, their sneaky wit, their delightful awkwardness, their fumbling forms of seduction. Then go home and notice your own weird charms. You’re not so bad! You’re just a human being. Tomorrow, anything could happen.
Open your eyes, ISMY. You’re young and you’re alive and this messed up world is so full of promise. Accept your path through a million mistakes. Do you know how long it took me to feel good? YEARS. But everything shifted once I realized that we’re all confused freaks, every last one of us, and we have a choice to either blame ourselves every single morning for what we are, or to forgive ourselves, over and over again.
So pray to the temple of forgiveness. Forgiving yourself is what makes you beautiful. Spreading compassion is what will bring you joy. Celebrate this glorious, cursed day with other compassionate weirdos just like you, and you’ll stay exactly this young until you’re dead.
Ask Polly is about to move to Substack full-time and expand into a temple of weird delights: I’ll be updating 2x a week, exploring buoyant life philosophies, unpacking the cultural poisons that hobble us, and interviewing ordinary people who’ve taken their own misfit paths from confusion to joy. (And for more something more rancid, there’s always Polly’s evil twin, Molly.) Please subscribe, and feel free to forward this to a friend!