ARTHUR: Old woman!
ARTHUR: Man. Sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
DENNIS: I’m thirty-seven.
ARTHUR: I– what?
DENNIS: I’m thirty-seven. I’m not old.
ARTHUR: Well, I can’t just call you ‘Man’.
DENNIS: Well, you could say ‘Dennis’.
The lines above are the fantastic beginning to a fantastic scene in a fantastic movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dennis, a character who is only in this one scene, is a 37-year-old man whom King Arthur mistakes for an old woman. Dennis is not amused by this.
I don’t tend to be confused for an old woman. But I have been confused for many years just how old I really am. Not about my real, chronological age. I have that one figured out. It’s 43, as I type this. But rather my perceived age, as a category: am I old? Young? Middle-aged?
It all started when I was in my twenties. Right out of seminary, I became the Director of Christian Education/Pastoral Assistant at a Lutheran church. A big portion of my job was working with the youth of that congregation, both in education and in the youth group. So I got to know the teenagers of the church rather well, and I also got to know their parents. Even though I was only about ten years (or less) older than most of them, to the youth, I was ancient. Let’s be honest — to teenagers (and kids), every adult is ancient. They didn’t tend to remind me of this. But their parents? Boy howdy, did they like to remind me how old I was. And to them, I was a baby. I was a young, green whippersnapper. I don’t think a week went by without someone saying something about how young I was, or how “you’ll understand when you have kids.” Sometimes I bristled at this. But often, I just found it amusing. After all, I was indeed older than all the youth, and also younger than all their parents. But the perception from each of them was that I was way older, and way younger. Maybe I brought that upon myself. I don’t know.
But I have noticed something ever since. Like I said before, I’m 43. I don’t think I’m particularly young anymore. I’m quite literally middle-aged. I’m a little past halfway to US life expectancy, which is 78 right now. But people ten, twenty, thirty years older than I still like to tell me how young I am. Just a few days ago, another pastor asked me how old I was. “43,” I said. “Oh, you’re so young.” These conversations happen a surprising amount in the church. I remember someone coming in to my church shortly after I started there. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Are you the pastor?” I said I was. He said, “How old are you?” (Amazing how bold some people can be.) I said, “37.” He said, “They let people that young be pastors? Wow!”
I still bristle at it sometimes. Sometimes I feel like, “Seriously? I’ve been told I’m so young for twenty years now. When do I get to be viewed as grown-up?” Sometimes, I’ve responded to people by saying something like, “I’ve been trying to get older quicker, but it’s just not working.” Sometimes, I’ve just looked at the person earnestly and said, “I’m sorry.” Usually, I just don’t say anything.
But I’m finally starting to understand that it has absolutely nothing to do with me. People who say things like that are saying it because they are jealous. Not of me, exactly, but of my age. They are wistfully thinking of a time when they were younger. They wish they were 43 again. (Or 32. Or 25. Or whatever age I was when they asked me.) At least, I think that’s what’s going on. I mean, if you are honestly surprised that a parish pastor can be 37 years old, then I don’t know what to tell you. But I really think that a lot of people are uncomfortable with their age.
I’ve never really struggled with that. I’ve never wanted to be older or younger than I am. It never bothered me to hit 30, or 40. I don’t imagine 50 will be bad either. Some things are different. I’m now into the land of progressive lenses and blood pressure medicine. I now have so many crowns in my mouth that I should qualify as a checker champion. And I am starting to wonder if I’ve made the right choices in my life — I certainly am understanding why they call it “mid-life.” I’m realizing that the potential for the rest of my life is less than it used to be. But nonetheless, I wouldn’t give it up. I wouldn’t go back in time to age 30 or 20 or 10. I have wisdom now I didn’t have then. And I wouldn’t want to relive any of it. Every age I’ve been has had its joys and its sorrows. Being a kid was awesome, except when it sucked. Being an adult is awesome, except when it sucks. I imagine that being old, whenever (and if) that finally happens, will also be awesome. Except when it sucks. 37 was a good year, and a bad year. 43’s shaping up the same way.