How I accidently avoided ageing by becoming unstuck in time.

Photo credit: American Society of Landscape Architects

After my birthday, my godsend of a friend, Angela St Pierre sent me a text.  “How do you feel at this age?” Which I read as a gentle way of asking, “How does it feel to be 72? To be old?”

The first thing that came to mind was, “How does it feel to be what age? I feel like I am 22.  I have always felt that I was 22 since I became unstuck in time.”

What does my 22 year old mindset feel like? My view of the world, myself, and my future was set in stone and no matter what has happened afterwards, I can’t shake it. How do I feel when I wake up every morning? Like most 22-year-old people I feel young and fit, a little nervous that I haven’t accomplished much yet, I don’t have anything special to offer potential employers, but I’m looking forward to see what I can accomplish in the long life I have ahead of me. I know I won’t be exceptional, I was always a “B” student, I can work hard when I have to, but I also do the bare minimum on tasks that bore me, but I would like to get the chance to help people someday. It would be nice to do a few adventures before I get too old to enjoy them, maybe see new parts of the world. Sometimes it is a little daunting to think that I will have to work for 43 more years before I get to retire and kickback at 65, so I hope I don’t end up in a crappy, boring job. I am somewhat brave, but nervous about doing things for the first time. I wake up every morning thinking that I am nothing yet, but I can be something someday if I’m lucky and someone gives me a chance. I am eager to see what life brings, I hope I don’t blow it, and I hope people like me.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Unstuck in time. I first encountered the phrase, “unstuck in time” while reading Slaughter House 5 back in college.  Kurt Vonnegut uses the term to describe how his character, Billy Pilgrim, jumps from one moment in his life to another moment, randomly, instead of moving through life day-to-day as most people do. 

But I interpreted it differently.

When I was 10 years old, I felt 10 years old.  At 18, I felt 18.  And we all know what turning 21 felt like.  But later on, I noticed that when I hit 30, or 40, or 50, I did not feel that I had aged that much.  In fact, I had not aged at all, I still felt 22. 

When my daughter Iliana was young she was a firm believer in what became the nation’s security motto, “If you see something, say something.”  For example, one day I was leaving for work and Iliana called out, “Dad, do ever even LOOK in a mirror?”  I had to admit I avoided mirrors because being unstuck in time creates a cruel reversal of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I walk around feeling that I look like this:

Then I glance in a mirror and am shocked to see an apparition of this poor soul that definitely should have taken better care of himself:

I had long pondered how I had become unstuck in time, unstuck from ageing, stuck at 22.  I think that most people have a mental age much younger than their numerical age, they too are unstuck, here’s is how it happened to me.

I was 22 in 1971, which was not a great year for me.  I had just graduated from college and had joined the California National Guard to avoid the possibility of bleeding to death in Vietnam. I was required to spend 8 weeks in US Army basic training at Fort Polk, LA, then 10 weeks in medic school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio before returning to San Diego to finish out my six year commitment with drills one weekend a month, two weeks every summer in the barren landscape of Fort Irwin, CA, on the edge of Death Valley, riding around in a jeep ambulance, following a long line of tanks going who-knows-where to accomplish who-knows-what. 

When I returned to work in the fire department my medic training got me assigned to every first aid run, and all-too-quickly I was a witness to the most horrific tragedy of my career, pulling three badly burned children out of a car fire.

Maybe those two events, back-to-back, are why I became unstuck in time; being jerked out of my normal, happy-go-lucky life to be trained to kill, and then save the injured; then going on that tragic run, after which I lost all my sense that there was fairness and justice in this cruel world. I was also burdened with a crushing sense of shame that I had failed to save those three children.

After that day, no matter how many years passed, I did not age.  I had many great opportunities come my way, starting a state-wide domestic violence program;  teaching in a high school for my beloved bad boys and bad girls; starting ProBAR in Texas to provide lawyers for refugees fleeing the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras; and nine wonderful years mentoring 126 interns who spoke on the phone with ICE detainees seeking direction on how to represent themselves in immigration court as they fought deportation to a country where people waited to kill them.  Those interns restored my faith in humanity, and I knew I had the privilege of meeting new advocates who were going to accomplish more than I ever did.

But in every job I had, I suffered “imposter syndrome” which the Harvard Business Review defines as “. . . doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades.” 

Perhaps the root of my imposter syndrome was being unstuck in time, over the course of my career, whenever I was asked to be a guest speaker, or received an “Atta boy, excellent work!” With every pat on the back, I was always thinking, “You got the wrong guy, I’m just a kid!”

Even at year number 67, with 40 years as a lawyer behind me, I never felt like a seasoned pro.  With each new job I felt like I was just winging it, waiting for the day when my office door would burst open and for my red-faced boss to shout, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU’RE DOING!”

I had imagined this scene so many times I had my reply ready.  “I RESENT THAT! . . . But I can’t deny it, I’ve been faking it since the day I started. Help me find some cardboard boxes and I’ll get out of your way.”

So how does it feel to be at year 72?  Well, I think it is best summed up by an encounter I had on a park bench in front of the White House in Washington, DC.

Photo credit: American Society of Landscape Architects

I was working for the ABA in 2005, reading on a park bench in Lafayette Park, hiding out to avoid working, and a boy of seven or eight climbed up on the bench next to me.

“What’cha reading, mister?”

“A detective novel.  Do you like to read?”

“Yep.”

“What kind of books to you like?”

“Dinosaurs, mostly.”

“Nice.  I like dinosaurs, too. But I have a question for you.  Did anyone ever tell you that you shouldn’t talk to strangers?”

His face collapsed, tears welled up in his eyes and he said, “I’m not a stranger, mister.  I’m just a kid!”

It took me a while to comfort him back to smiles.

So how does it feel to be this age?  I have no idea, Angela, I’m not old, I’m still just a 22 year old kid, sitting on a park bench, trying to avoid work and mirrors, hoping I don’t blow my chance to accomplish something with my life.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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