I didn’t expect to be running half-marathons at 44, or going back to graduate school, or to be working two jobs that I really love, or to be embarking on my 4th marriage to a man who is an amazing partner and friend. I didn’t expect I’d be so enamored with my teenagers, so excited about new knitting and cooking projects, so opinionated about politics and social justice, so involved with my friends. I thought middle age would be, well, dull!
It is not dull. Maybe it’s because I’ve already made a lifetime’s worth of mistakes and survived, maybe it’s because death is a thousand times more real to me now that it has touched my friends and family so often, maybe it’s because I have finally learned that judging people is way less rewarding than pursuing my own interests, who knows? But here as I approach my 45th birthday at a full gallop, I am happier, more energetic, more fully myself than I have ever been, and I am stunned with gratitude and amazement every time I think about it.
I should have listened to my mother when she told me that life begins at 40. I bet I gave her the same eye-rolling, forehead-smacking disbelief that my kids now give me. But she was right! Although I am enormously influenced by my parents and my upbringing, I have tested (and downright violated) those principles often enough to have reached my peace with them. I’ve faced the distasteful consequences of selfish, thoughtless choices often enough that I now pause before making them, and even at times abstain. I’ve become more confident and more creative as I get older, more willing to risk what doesn’t matter in the service of what does.
Best part is, I know what matters. The touch of my children or my husband or my cat, the joy of intellectual exploration and discovery, the beauty of a song or a sunset, the weary peace that comes from doing my very best even if the gain is negligible, those are what matters. Other things matter too: paying bills on time, keeping my home and person reasonably presentable, changing the car’s oil and the cat’s flea collar and the furnace filter. Staying on top of those practical details allows me to be independent in the world, and that’s what the game is all about at this age, folks, earning and then using the right to live exactly the way you want to.
Remember hearing over and over again how “youth is wasted on the young?” I hope that middle age isn’t wasted on those of us lucky enough to make it this far. It’s so easy to succumb to the relentless cultural message that youth is king, that young bodies, young voices, young minds are the ones that matter. It’s not true! The young still have our journeys in front of them, our lessons to learn, our losses to withstand. They may be the darling of the advertisers and the entertainment industry, but we know exactly what that’s worth, because we were there too. We have been given time, and with time comes the possibility of wisdom, perspective and insight. These are the blessings of middle age, to whatever extent we may possess them. We have fought battles and seen what it is to win and lose, and learned that at the end of either, peace is more precious than sorrow or celebration. This is our power, the contribution we have to make and our secret weapon to bring happiness to ourselves and to the world.
Oh yes, we are powerful, we at the zenith of our arc. Even though we may be struggling with family, health or money problems, even though we may feel like we have made no progress in detaching from our youthful hangups and flaws, time has been working on us, teaching us. While we dealt with the daily challenges of raising children, making ends meet, building careers, we were learning who we are and how to make our talents the servants of our destiny. We learned fortitude, persistence and how to give thanks for the days that could have been a lot worse. As our parents’ generation enters old age, we learn to mourn and still to honor those who once we couldn’t imagine living without. Friends in our own generation are touched and sometimes ravaged by chronic disease, mental illness or addiction, or they fall to illnesses that we never imagined happening to us…cancer, heart attacks, strokes.
We persevere in the face of all this and we keep on learning. We weather bad marriages and build good ones, we raise unhappy children and happy ones, we work at unsatisfying jobs and ones that feed our souls, and still we learn. We start to see that we can’t fix anyone or force anyone to be what we want them to be. We let go of our need to control others and start putting our energy into doing what pleases and inspires us. We are ripe for growth, and we have the tools to nurture and prune ourselves into the shapes that satisfy and enlighten us. Do we always use those tools? Heck, no! But we have them, and that’s a start.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about this chapter of my life has been the blurring of the mind-body barrier. I spent my youth and much of my adult life living in my head and letting my body take care of itself. This suited me just fine, even though I didn’t enjoy the pangs of self-loathing when I considered my modestly overweight, decidedly non-athletic body compared to the version of attractiveness shown by movies/magazines/TV. I had periods of regular exercise starting in my early 20s and even developed a regular running regimen a little after turning 30, which lasted a few years but never stopped feeling like a chore, something to meet other people’s expectations. No surprise that it petered out and I didn’t miss it. I just figured I was an insecure introvert and that people like me weren’t really cut out for that sort of thing. I even took a perverse sort of pride in it, as if those who took care of their bodies and their health were somehow shallower and more vain than I.
Eventually my mind began to open. I went through a long period in my life where chaos and instability were the norm, and learned that I felt empowered and more stable when I was feeding myself a healthy diet and ensuring that I got adequate exercise and sleep. When that period ended and I was faced with the challenge of living exactly as I wanted to, I discovered that as long as I ate well and exercised hard, my anxieties remained manageable and my energy level remained high. A little later in the process, I began to set and then to meet fitness and nutrition goals for myself which boosted my confidence and showed me that the best way to live in my head is to make sure my body is getting optimum care first.
The upshot, of course, is that I am now blessed to be living a life that I could never have imagined as a 22 year-old. Some of that is due to astounding good fortune, but some of it is due to my doing it now, as a woman of a certain age with decades of experience to guide me in shaping my own destiny. I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, and am very glad to have them behind me. I’ve loved and lost, been knocked down and stood back up, hurt people who didn’t deserve it and then walked away. There are plenty of not-so-proud moments in my history and I own them repentantly, with sorrow. But they all taught me something, which is the point of this whole being-alive thing in the end.
We are all the sum of our endeavors, of our feelings and thoughts and mistakes and triumphs. We have spent years accumulating knowledge about who we are and what we want, and our powers are sufficient to put that knowledge to good use improving our own lives and the life of our world. Whatever route we’ve taken to get here, whatever obstacles we’ve overcome or damage we’ve done, we’re most likely past the halfway point now. We can pause, take stock and ponder where we’ve been and where we’re going. We can decide who we’re taking with us and how to make the journey more satisfying. We can take comfort and courage from the fact we’ve made it this far, and resolve to make the next steps in the road more purposeful and more authentic. This is a time for looking upon ourselves with compassion and gratitude, to acknowledge our strengths and accept our weaknesses, and above all to move forward and see what’s next. Dull? I think not.
©Mary Braden 2016