Friday, October 16, 2009

Reflections on Turning Forty

“Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Different variations on this quote have been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, which is somewhat odd, given that what I’ve read of the great man indicates that he often found himself in a mood that was definitely not happy. It is possible, I suppose, that Lincoln was speaking of the happiness that transcends mere emotion.

The quote came to mind to me on the occasion of my 40th birthday. My person, unfortunately, is not so tightly integrated that I can tell myself how to feel about something. My emotions are what they are, and the most I can hope to do is manage them and keep them from by-passing my intellect to influence my actions. No matter how often I tell myself that this milestone doesn’t really mean anything, it’s impossible to shake the nagging feeling that a threshold has been crossed.

When I was in my thirties, I could run or lift weights, secure in the knowledge that I was taking care of myself. Now, in my forties, it suddenly seems more like a vain and futile attempt to stave off the inevitable. That’s a sentiment that’s not born in any rational part of my brain; it comes from somewhere else.

Perhaps coincidentally, Joe Carter over at the First Thoughts blog posted an excerpt from a book on spiritual depression, which seems to suggest that if we listen to ourselves less and talk to ourselves more, we’ll be more emotionally happy. I already do a lot of that, and I have yet to argue myself into a good mood. At some point, I have to rest my argument, for fear that my self will devolve into a parody (!) of an old Al Franken skit on Saturday Night Live.

Here are some considerations. If eighty is an average life span, then forty is middle age. According to the 2005 actuarial table published by our federal government, at the age of 40, I have approximately 37.3 years left. I actually entered middle age somewhere between my 38th and 39th birthdays.

I expect that I’ll probably have to keep working for at least 30 more years. I functionally became an adult (i.e., started paying my own way) when I graduated from college 17 years ago, and I’ve really only been contributing to the private sector for 12 years. I could argue, therefore, that I’m nowhere near the middle of my adult life.

Age itself is only a statistic. It can’t be anything more than a general indicator of health, wellness, and maturity. I should really avoid comparing myself to other men on the basis of age alone. I should really avoid comparing myself to other men period. I am my own man! And yet age determines when we can drive, vote, drink, and qualify for senior citizen and retirement benefits. It might someday be determinative of whether we will receive life-saving or extending medical care.

Should I live my life any differently at forty than I did at thirty? Only to the extent that I find myself in different circumstances – time marches relentlessly on; there is no going back. At thirty, I had three kids with one on the way, and the oldest was five. At forty, I have six kids with one on the way, and the oldest is fifteen. Different circumstances demand different behavior. I have to believe that if I were 35 or 45, my choices today would not be any different.

I keep telling myself that age doesn’t matter! Forty is a meaningless number! If I keep repeating it to myself, I might even believe it.

Now where do I get in line to buy my sportscar?

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