Elizabeth Day: The older I get, the less I know about myself

I once interviewed the late author Elizabeth Jane Howard. It was a month after her 90th birthday and she had just sent off her 15th novel to her publishers. I was charmed. I already loved her books, and in person I found someone who, despite her success, was humble because deep down her childhood insecurity had never entirely left her.

Jenny Brough

When I asked her how old she felt, Elizabeth replied: ‘Sometimes I don’t feel any age at all. I feel naive and open to things.’

I remarked at the time that it was a wonderful quality for a 90-year-old novelist to have – a willingness to engage with the world and discover new experiences – but I think now it’s a wonderful quality in anyone.

There is so much emphasis put on self-knowledge. We’re told it’s only possible to love someone if we love ourselves first; that we must know ourselves before we venture into the world and mess everything up because of our unformed psyches.

A whole industry has sprung up around the notion of ‘self-care’ which tells us we should block out times in our diaries for appointments with ourselves, preferably taken in a bubble bath surrounded by scented candles.

Of course, I like bubble baths as much as the next person, and it’s true that the effort to comprehend who we are is a noble one. It’s simply that I don’t think it’s a task we can ever complete. It’s taken me a long time to understand a bit about who I am, but at the age of 41 I can happily admit that I still don’t fully know.

I was reminded of this when a young woman took to Instagram to review a book I’d written about failure, in which I’d tried to be honest about my own errors of judgment. I’d offered up my mistakes as examples of moments when, although I wished it might have been otherwise at the time, I had learnt something valuable as a result. So although I never thought my first marriage would end in divorce, I took the knowledge I’d acquired about a dysfunctional relationship and applied it to ensuring future attachments would be less so. In the process, I learned something about myself.

The Instagram reviewer had a hilarious take on this, stating that ‘If you’re even somewhat well-adjusted, it plays as an immature woman who didn’t figure anything out until her 30s.’

She did not mean it unkindly, and the rest of the review was nice enough. Still, I howled with laughter at this line. Guilty as charged, I thought. I definitely didn’t figure anything important out until I was well into my 30s for the fairly obvious reason that I needed to live more life to understand it.

The reviewer seemed to be in her late teens or early 20s and I admired her unapologetic sense of self and her clear belief in her own well-adjusted perspective on the world. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether this confidence was a function of youth. It’s easy to think you know where you’re headed at 17: I certainly did. I had clear-cut plans to pass my driving test, become a political correspondent on a daily newspaper, get married and have two daughters by the time I was in my early 30s. I never questioned whether I’d be able to do it; I just assumed if I worked hard enough it would all fall into place.

I didn’t pass my driving test and I didn’t become a political correspondent (thank goodness). I got divorced and I failed to have children. Every single setback made me realise how much more of life there was to know. Being surprised by life is, for me, a marker of wisdom rather than immaturity. It would be arrogant to assume I know it all. When things don’t go to plan, it’s often because the plan wasn’t right in the first place.

This week I’m…

Gifting

With The Hoop Station’s isolation birthday service: you set a budget, then your loved one has a video consultation, showing them suitable earrings.

Working out

With Lululemon Wunder Under high-rise leggings, which sculpt and support in the most flattering way.

Floating

Around the house during lockdown in this dreamy floral midi dress from luxe loungewear label Yolke.