“Middle age arrives ... with a sudden unbidden insight in the middle of a sleepless night. You roll over and eye the clock and see all at once that the phrase ‘anything is possible’ is not true. That is, it is no longer true for you, if it ever was …. In a way, this comes as a relief.”
This quote from a New York Times piece by writer Bill Hayes precisely mirrors reflections I’ve had recently on middle age.
See the full article here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/22/out-with-the-old-anxiety/
I remember, upon turning 30, the feeling of relief at leaving behind the 20s. They are just too potent with possibility, the pressure to make your mark too high. You can no longer look to whatever kind of clueless or over-protective parents you had to explain your shortcomings, your failure to live up to your full potential. It all comes down to your own wits and initiative and, like on “Iron Chef” or “Survivor,” you will be tested. Some will not make the cut.
Upon leaving that caldron of youth behind, I couldn’t extoll the virtues of the 30s enough. Until, that is, I was unceremoniously dumped at the doorstep of 40. Crossing the threshold, I found it was indeed a different world. Whereas the 30s were about feeling comfortable in my own skin, the 40s have been about wondering what’s up with that skin. Why’s it so wrinkly and saggy? What’s that splotch? Is it something I should get looked at?
In the 30s, embracing my list of ambitions that were no longer possible – pro snowboarder, Hollywood starlet, war correspondent – was a sign of my maturity and self acceptance. In my 40s, the “no longer possible” list is growing not because I’ve accepted my path, but because I’ve accepted the math. There just isn’t time or juice in the battery. Any physical feats I may manage to achieve will only be impressive when compared to my cohort. And that is assuming I get around to achieving them. Professionally, I’m in a field that allows for reinvention and late blooming but any acclaim I may yet achieve will not be won by endurance or ascetic rigor. My family of four can’t leave for the weekend without a full trunk, forget living out of one. I’m as rooted as our unwieldy but highly productive vegetable garden in late summer.
This isn’t to say I don’t still have a list of aspirations. But they are bite-size (i.e., ride the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, arriving to Silverton before they break down the course; visit Telluride for the first time despite have lived just a couple hours away from it for years; sew something). Most my resolutions don’t venture into the netherworld that is 2014.
The real reason I’m low on high ambitions for myself is that middle age seems to be intent on teaching me it’s not about me. A lot of that has to do with having kids. Ever since those lovely beings entered my life, I’ve been on their timetable, riding the waves of their emotions, turning, life a sunflower, to follow the trajectory of their sun. Even the most humble of goals – arrive to work on time, keep the bathroom from looking like it belongs to frat boys – elude me.
Ultimately, I realized I’m happier when I accept that I’m not really in control of my destiny. I may not, it turns out, be the engineer of this train, the captain of this ship. I’m not the commander of mission control. I’m not the queen of this kingdom. Instead, I’m more like a cog in the machine, a piece of the puzzle, an ingredient in the cake, a blade of grass. One fish in a school. Just one more writer of bad metaphors.
Turns out being demoted is really not so bad because attempting to control people, places and things is a Sisyphean task. You don’t realize how heavy that boulder is until you stop trying to roll it up the hill.
So instead of working on people, I’m thinking more about how I can work for them. Like, you know, be of service. While grandiose gestures would be nice – further world peace, stop global warming, end poverty – I try to keep it doable. This means looking for ways in my everyday life I can be kind, generous and helpful. I try to throw in a dollop of honesty and authenticity for good measure. Some days I succeed. Others, not so much.
But, to what will come as no surprise to those fortunate enough to be born with grace rather than having to be hit over the head with it, the effort is quite fulfilling. Being takes on a lightness and mystery it never possessed before. The second half of my life has started seeming more imbued with promise and potential than the first. Anything *that matters* is still possible.
Viewed from this vantage, middle age ain’t so bad. And if the sags, bags and wrinkles are what it took to get here, so be it. I embrace them. I LOVE them. I think they are BEAUTIFUL. (OK, that last part was a total lie.)