It’s impossible to contemplate aging (as prompted by WordPress’s writing challenge this week) without considering the fact that I’M TURNING 40 THIS SUMMER!!!
Yes, the big 4-0.
Most of the time, I’m comfortable with this reality. I’m actually kind of looking forward to it. I like milestones. I like those moments that ask you to take stock. My birthday every year…New Year’s Eve. I get a lot out of those marker moments.
Granted, 40 is one of those ages that people tend to have trouble with – but then, so is 30, and I didn’t have any trouble at all with 30. I don’t even remember turning 30. It was kind of…nothing. So I figured (the little that I thought about it at all until recently) that 40 would be, if anything, just a cooler-than-usual milestone day, being a decade-turning one.
Added to that, my thirties have been rather…(what’s a polite word?) turbulent. And I’ve been particularly looking forward to the soul-cleansing exercise of bookending them and starting fresh.
But…okay, I admit it. Despite what I just said, there’s something about turning 40 that’s bothering me.
This writing challenge seems like a good opportunity to dig into what.
It’s not about aging. That I’m sure of. I don’t care much about gray hairs and such things. The idea of getting older in years really isn’t much of an issue for me at this point in my life.
My issue with 40 isn’t anything so straightforward.
Upon pondering, I’ve realized that it’s 2 main things:
Firstly (and probably primarily), it’s about the fact that you’re supposed to be a “real grown-up” at this age…right?
I mean, by 40 you’re (supposedly) no longer searching, no longer building your life. 40’s not about “what do I want to be when I grow up.” You’re THERE. You’re grown-up. It’s done.
By 40 you’re supposed to be a finished, polished version of your younger, more messed-up and confused self. At 40, you’re supposed to have your life together.
And you have the trappings to prove it too. Society is pretty clear about what indicators need to be there to prove you’re a responsible, fully-formed grown-up: things like, say, a stable marriage…a house…financial security.
And I don’t have…well…ANY of that stuff.
So, yeah…that’s been producing a little anxiety as I round the home stretch here toward my fortieth birthday.
And the stupid thing about this? I don’t even want any of that stuff.
The truth is, I really like feeling like my life is wide open – that I’m not a finished product. I don’t want to ever be a finished product, frankly! I think life is much more interesting when there are things on the horizon to learn…when there are opportunities for exploring new worlds. And you can’t learn and explore, not for real, without expanding. And that means changing – and being open to change. It means being perpetually “unfinished.”
I think when you consider yourself “finished,” that’s when life begins to constrict. And more than anything else, I want an expansive life.
And the trappings of conventional adulthood don’t appeal to me either – pretty much not at all (with the exception of financial security.) I’m not pining to own a house. Someday perhaps I’d like that – but I actually really, really don’t want to put down roots like that right now. I also have zero desire to get married again.
And as far as financial security is concerned? I would LOVE to feel like I have that; of course I would. But the thing is, I want to get there on my own terms – meaning through something entrepreneurial and/or creative, something meaningful to me. And that takes building…which takes time.
I do worry a little bit that the “time” to financial improvement seems to be moving really, really slowly sometimes. But as long as there’s forward motion (and I do feel that there is), I think I’m doing okay there. I’m hanging in. I think it’s about keeping your eyes on your goals…and “keeping the faith,” as they say.
But you see what I’m actually saying here, right? I’m feeling anxiety about turning 40 because I’m not fitting into some definition of “grown-up” that doesn’t even interest me. How dumb is that???
I don’t even know when my picture of 40 formed. Probably around 10 or 12. But it’s definitely present – deep in my psyche. And it’s giving me stress. Ridiculous, I know – but there it is.
I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love right now, and at one point she discusses how much she enjoys visiting Rome’s Augusteum – which is a site that was built as a mausoleum and then became a fortress – then a vineyard, a garden, a bullring, a fireworks depository, a concert hall, a mausoleum again [almost], and finally [I take it] a museum.
This passage also provides a framework for getting older that I like considerably better than my preteen-formulated framework:
“I look at the Augusteum, and I think that perhaps my life has not actually been so chaotic, after all. It is merely this world that is chaotic, bringing changes to us all that nobody could have anticipated. The Augusteum wants me not to get attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may once have intended to serve. Yesterday I might have been a glorious monument to somebody, true enough – but tomorrow I could be a fireworks depository. Even in the Eternal City, says the silent Augusteum, one must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation.
[Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, pg. 75]
“Riotous and endless waves of transformation.” I like that. I like anticipating those sorts of moments in my life. I want moments like those. They keep things interesting!
I think if I can remember that, I’ll effectively counter that pre-teen version of 40 I have buried inside…and I’ll feel much better!
Of course, there’s another angle to the prospect of turning 40 that is bothersome – and this one doesn’t originate from inside of me. It comes from other people…from “society.” Which makes it a little trickier to deal with (you can’t talk it away if it’s coming from without; you have to just find a way to ignore it.)
So this is the 2nd thing about turning 40 that’s bothering me:
It has to do with the fact that, as a kid, you’re encouraged so incessantly to “follow your dreams.” But that then, somewhere between 30 and 40, you have to turn that off. “Following your dreams” becomes “immaturity.” It becomes irresponsible. Selfish.
This is a reality I first became aware of when I decided to get divorced. I was very startled by it at first – but now I think it’s just the way our culture operates. There’s enormous pressure to conform to “the norm.” Amicably divorcing because you’ve realized you and your husband make much better friends than lifelong intimate partners? There’s something intrinsically wrong with that (so says the prevailing wisdom.) Following your dreams in your 40s? No…that’s the time to settle down, to pad your nest, to turn your focus fully to the practical.
So hitting 40 means you’re not just dealing with your own ideas about what being a grown-up is all about and where your life should be by this point (which is plenty in itself!) No…you’re also dealing with other people’s ideas about what this age should be. And there’s great pressure within that to conform to the conventional – which can be difficult for those of us who don’t find fulfillment there. (Expecting to find personal fulfillment can also be looked at as selfish and immature at this age. [Do I just know really narrowminded people??])
I think the pressure to embrace a conventional life might subside a little once you hit retirement age. I think there’s a certain amused tolerance for eccentricity at that age. But I don’t think amusement or tolerance comes your way much if you’re unconventional at 40. And that can be stressful.
I’m reminded now of a passage from another book.
There’s a section in The Alchemist, where the old king in the marketplace is explaining to Santiago the shepherd boy about the concept of a person’s “personal legend” – which is basically the thing you most want in life, the thing you are here on Earth to accomplish. The old king notes that everyone knows what their personal legend is when they are young – but, as time passes and the years accumulate, things begin to get in the way.
The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, [as you do.] But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going to spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time of their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.
“Well, he thought of that,” the old man said. “But bakers are more important people than shepherds. Bakers have homes, while shepherds sleep out in the open. Parents would rather see their children marry bakers than shepherds.”
“In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.”
[Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, pg. 22-23.]
This – this choosing of the practical over dreams – is often called “growing up.” And it’s looked at as noble – as a way of living worth martyring yourself for.
I think maybe it’s because risk is uncomfortable – very much so. I think it’s actually uncomfortable in a GOOD way (because moving out of your comfort zone makes you grow.) But I think there are a lot of people who don’t, or maybe can’t, see that. They can’t get past the discomfort – and because of that trade in the chance for the interesting and exciting for the boring and predictable. They figure that’s the safe path – and that it’s smarter to play it safe. They accept the fact that they won’t reach their full human potential, and they accept the vague (or sometimes not so vague) dissatisfaction that comes from that in the name of “being realistic.”
And that’s their choice, of course. Everyone has to live their own life.
But the problem is, the people that do embrace that sort of martyrdom will (in my experience) defend the correctness of their choice with everything they have.
They have to. If they don’t, they might be forced to see themselves as people who weren’t brave…weren’t creative…didn’t value their dreams. And this is an unacceptable notion. So those people who aren’t conforming, who are deviating from the norm, who are carving different paths, less well-trod ones, less “safe” ones…those people have to be wrong. (Immature, selfish, etc.)
But here’s what bothers me about that: who can say what’s “safe”? No amount of doing what you’re “supposed to” do will guarantee you anything at all. Because there are no guarantees.
That’s the one inescapable fact of life. (Well, that and death, I suppose.)
And now I’m thinking of a movie.
I watched Mr. Nobody the other day. (Which, incidentally, was a really weird and interesting movie. Worth checking out!)
Near the end, the central character, Nemo, holds up a leaf, lets it go and watches it float away on the wind.
This – in a movie that is all about the myriad ways life twists and turns – is of course symbolic. It has to do with choice. Nemo’s conscious choices influence his life profoundly all through the film – but the film never lets you forget that some of what happens to you is, unavoidably, utterly beyond your ability to control. You can have everything you want, do everything right for yourself (as some incarnations of Nemo did) – and still die in some freak accident. Life’s like that.
Or you can love sincerely – and still find yourself with the wrong person.
Or you can do everything “right,” make the most careful, “grown-up” choices, and achieve all the trappings that broadcast that to the world – and yet be deeply unhappy.
Because there aren’t any guarantees in life, perhaps the goal shouldn’t be to adhere to some definition of “grown-up,” with all of its associated boxes checked off. Perhaps the goal should rather be to live authentically, from your soul, with passion – whatever that means for you as an individual and regardless of what other people say or think. Regardless of what the calendar says.
Because if you do that, it doesn’t matter how old you are in years or what you have (or don’t have). You’re living the fullest version of yourself. And with that, your life has value.
And if you feel like you have a valuable life, if you feel like you’re really, fully living, who cares what your age is?
Defining yourself by what you’re “supposed to” do or have or be doesn’t help you to live fully. It doesn’t in any way serve the pursuit of self-knowledge. You have to try things, experience things, give yourself permission to take wrong turns, even to crash and burn, sometimes again and again…and even again. You can’t make only “safe” choices. You have to step out of your comfort zone sometimes – maybe even often – and into the wider, scarier, exhilarating world. That’s the only way to become the person you were meant to be. And what’s the point of anything at all if you aren’t free to be who you’re meant to be?
So I guess that’s what it comes down to for me: living fully. That’s my goal. I don’t care how old I am. I don’t care what other people think of my choices. I want my focus to stay squarely on living my life – deeply and with authenticity.
I think if I can look at every year and feel like I experienced new things and learned from them, if I can mark every milestone with the knowledge that I learned and expanded since my last one…then I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
And then the passing of years becomes a celebration of a fascinating adventure rather than something to lament and fret over.
That’s what I want.
I’m not quite there yet – as evinced by the anxiety I’ve been feeling about 40. But I’m getting there.