I recently rediscovered Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist soap opera, The Age of Reason. It is a great read, especially now that I am in my thirties.
In this classic work set in Paris in the late 1930’s, the principal character, Mathieu, wants to live a life of freedom, or more specifically freedom from obligations and attachments. While he remains unfettered by political, personal, or material ties, he is still living a rather stable life, with an apartment, a long-term relationship, and a secure position as a philosophy teacher. Still, he takes comfort in knowing that each element of his life could be cast off, if he so chooses. He is content because he lives life deliberately, relentlessly, on his own terms.
His way of life is threatened when his mistress becomes pregnant. Over the next several hundred pages, we follow him through the streets of Paris as he desperately knocks on the doors of friends and family in attempt to make appropriate arrangements and come up with the necessary funds to pay for an abortion (taking a few detours through the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse, of course). At the home of his brother Jacques, he receives a lecture that comes off as pompous, dismal, and kind of true. Real freedom, argues Jacques, is accepting and confronting your responsibilities. Cue the beer commercial sages booming their hackneyed slogan “Man up!”
In the midst of their discussion, Sartre delivers this packed punch of an exchange:
“You are thirty-four years old … [lectures Jacques] your youth has gone, and the bohemian life doesn’t suit you at all. Besides, what is bohemianism, after all? It was amusing enough a hundred years ago, but today it is simply a name for a handful of eccentrics who are no danger to anybody, and have missed the train. You have attained the age of reason, Mathieu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so…”
“Pah!” said Mathieu. “Your age of reason is the age of resignation, and I’ve no use for it.”
Okay, so the age of reason, or resignation, is thirty-four? Sartre, I’ll take your word for it. Whew! Happy dance! I still have three more years to enjoy youthful ignorance.
Thank goodness, because true adulthood continues to elude me. I am a child playing dress-up when I don a suit or slip into a pair of pumps. If I had any money, I would have no clue where to put it. Home ownership, from what I’ve seen on HGTV, is an expensive hassle. My career “path” doesn’t appear to be leading in any particular direction. It more closely resembles a meandering, unmarked trail, where I keep getting scratched by the low-hanging branches and wondering if I might have missed a turn somewhere.
But, on the other hand, my priorities and lifestyle have noticeably shifted since I entered my thirties. I have a son now, and I am early to bed, early to rise, and just one glass of wine for me thank you very much I feel a little tipsy already. My husband has shown me the joys of living in a house that is orderly, clean, and stocked with food. I am open to learning more about how to climb the ladder and how to be a good teammate. My twenty year-old self waded through waist high laundry, lived off a steady diet of cookies and coffee, pulled a power hour before the party, and felt pretty content with her dog-walking gig. (“It’s outdoors, I have lots of free time, and I pull in $120 a week! Score!”)
Putting reason or resignation aside for the moment, I think reaching your thirties is a major milestone. Since the forties and the fear of the ever-looming, sports car buying, mid-life crisis get all the press, I asked a few friends what it meant for them to be in their thirties. What is different? What has changed?
Here’s what I learned:
- Cameron: “I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I was thirty pounds lighter in college. I had the body of an anime heroine! But, now the insecurities of my teens and twenties have faded, and I feel skinnier today. I also have a sense of financial independence that I never enjoyed in my twenties. If I want to splurge on a great jacket or bag, I can afford to do it.”
- Kerry: “A lot has changed since I turned 30! That was the year we bought a house. One year later, we got a dog and had a kid! Yikes! That’s a lot of growing up and settling down all in a short amount of time. But, at the same time, by 30 I was kind of ready for that to happen. During my twenties, I had a lot of independent life experiences-since I was pretty much responsible for just myself. I studied abroad, graduated from college, did a few years of voluntary service around the country, went to grad school, got my first real job. It was all about me and I feel like I accomplished quite a bit! Now that I’m in my thirties and I have a family and have been in one place and one job for awhile, that dynamic has shifted. It’s not all about me anymore.”
- Geoff: “Turning 35 this year, and still working out how to do what I want to do ‘when I grow up’ – and only got the basics of what I want to do worked out – though somewhat more ambitious as I get older, and much less focused on ‘what can I get’ as opposed to ‘what can I do/give/create’. So at least priorities have developed over time.”
- Alexandre, my husband, weighed in on the subject too: “It is so much harder to get in shape, and stay in shape. If I stop for a few weeks, I am back to square one. It didn’t use to be that way. Not to mention the injuries…and hangovers are a lot worse too.”
In my brief and unscientific survey, family, health, careers, and self-image were mentioned. It would seem that the third decade of life is fertile ground for major life developments and personal growth, but there is also a sense of slowing down and settling in. While many people noticed a shift in priorities, no one in my circle spoke of a tragic disillusionment with their philosophical framework of living. Good. I guess we will have to leave that to Sartre’s Mathieu, who, at 34 years old, is forced to examine his entire way of being and constructing relationships. Over the course of the novel, he sees that his pursuit of freedom is nothing but grave inaction. His life has come to nothing, and he fears that it is too late to change. Only with the acquisition of this devastating knowledge did it happen.
He attained the age of reason.