I work in an office populated by coworkers who are younger than I am. They’re a great bunch, and several of them have turned 30 over the past couple years. I’ve overheard them talking about how they feel old, how they miss their carefree twenties, and how life now is filled with too many responsibilities. As someone who will turn 60 in 2018, I have to smile, but I felt the same way they do when I turned 30. When you’re in your twenties, you still feel like you have all the time in the world to do whatever you want to do in life. It’s like being in an open field with endless horizons stretching in all directions. Then you turn 30, and you’re pushed into a canyon with gradually narrowing walls. You don’t want to think about what’s at the end of that canyon.
What I miss most about being in my twenties is that sense of endless possibilities, and also the thrill of discovering books, movies, ideas, philosophies, and truths for the first time—things that now elicit a “yeah, well, obviously” from me. William Wordsworth eloquently summed it up in his poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
In an ideal reality, most of us who are “of a certain age” probably would like to be forever in our twenties, but possessing the wisdom that comes with age (yes, the “wisdom” part is real). That isn’t how our reality works, though. Here, then, are five positive realizations I’ve come to since I passed age 50:
1. Trying to remain young is stressful.
We live in a culture that worships youth and derides middle age and old age. Because of this, we put an inordinate amount of time and effort into trying to stay, act, think, and look young, knowing that it’s a race against time—a race we’ll inevitably lose. We pluck those first gray hairs that sprout from our scalps (or we color our hair), invest in skin-care products to stave off or reduce wrinkles, wear clothing styles we probably shouldn’t, try to appreciate whatever music “the kids today” are listening to, and clumsily adopt a few of the latest slang terms. Turning 40 is traumatic, because it’s the unofficial gateway from youth into middle age. Our culture’s obsession with youth is unhealthy, especially now that people are living longer, and youth becomes a smaller percentage of our lives. We all get old (if we’re lucky), so why should we be embarrassed about it? Quite frankly, it’s a relief for me to have dropped out of the race.
2. The “infinite possibilities of youth” were an illusion.
Despite the many forks in life’s road, we each end up taking only one path. At age eight, my friend Jerry had the remarkable insight that time is the one thing that, once spent, can never be regained. He’s based his life on that truth, wanting to experience as much as possible, but knowing that it’s impossible to experience everything, and that one has to sacrifice some things in order to have others. As he says, “We each end up living the life we want to.” That’s not to dismiss external events that are beyond our control, but we’re always faced with choices and trade-offs. When I turned 50, I had an existential crisis. I knew that I’d never visit all the places I’d dreamed about visiting, never write all the books and record all the songs I’d planned to, and never do a lot of other things I’d said I was going to do when I was 20. Once I got over that crisis, though, I realized that, if I’d really wanted to do all those things, I would have done so. Nothing ever prevented me. Overall, I’m happy with the life I chose.
3. You become comfortable in your own skin.
I love the fact that I have the self-confidence I lacked when I was younger, and that I’ve learned to accept who I am. As I wrote about in an earlier post, I spent much of my life chasing other people’s rainbows. I wanted what I thought I should want, without asking myself what I actually did want. I placed too much pressure on myself to be perfect. Now, I know what I want, and I know that nobody is or can be perfect. I’m a lot calmer than I used to be. To quote Fred Astaire’s character in the movie The Purple Taxi, “When I was young, I was old and serious. Now that I’m old, I’m young and having a good time.” Or, as Bob Dylan put it in his song “My Back Pages,” “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”
4. The “carefree days of youth” didn’t always seem so at the time.
It’s human nature to remember the good and forget the bad. I sometimes look back wistfully on the music, movies, books, and technology of the 1980s, because I associate them with being young. Whenever I start feeling too nostalgic about my lost youth, though, I look at the struggles of the young people I know: struggles with work, finances, relationships, and figuring out who they are. I went through those struggles myself. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t think, “Gee, it’s great to be twenty-something!” I lived in the future, constantly fantasizing about how great my life was going to be, once I figured out how to get there. Does anyone ever think, “Everything about my life is perfect right now, and I wish I could stay this age forever”?
5. It ain’t over till it’s over.
While some options close as you get older, others open. Perhaps retirement gives you the freedom to travel to places you weren’t able to when you were younger, or to indulge in a hobby that you couldn’t before because you lacked the free time. The proverbial “wisdom that comes with age” gives you intellectual and emotional tools to do things you couldn’t have done when you were young. Look at Pam and me: how many people start a website and blog at our age? If I hadn’t been laid off at age 55 and been out of work for six months, I don’t know that I’d have taken the time to learn web development and WordPress. This is turning out to be the creative outlet we’d always wanted, and we hope it will be of help to others.
What about you? Are you getting up there in years and having a great time?
Featured image at top: Fine aged cognac on a winter’s day