The Fourth Decade

One of my closest friends turned 40 today. I’ve been thinking about this one, trying to figure out why we put this much significance on a birthday, why we decorate this particular mile marker with lights and flowers and well-meaning phrases full of pith, borrowed from antiquity or Sex in the City, one of the two. I’ve had this conversation before with friends in their late 30s and early 40s, and we all say the same thing: “I don’t feel 40. I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, but whatever it is, I don’t feel it. Does it mean we have to wear longer skirts now?”

Whatever cause for contemplation there is, I’ll take the bait. I know that, at minimum, turning 40 gives us permission to take stock and see where we are, to ask of ourselves: What have I learned (if anything?) What have I gained or lost? What am I contributing (if anything)? What’s necessary?

There’s a great book (I’m forgetting the title now) which is a compilation of letters from writers, artists, philosophers, and other notables giving advice to the young. Advice is sticky, and everyone knows it. Who are any of us to say what someone else should do or not do? How to live or not live? My path was certainly as circuitous and contradictory and clumsy as anyone else’s. I can’t very well tell a purported mini-me to make all the same choices as I did, or not, whatever… And while I’m at it, who’s to say that I’m not still young myself? (as I bristle, with a toss of my head). I mean, geez, if someone out there has any advice for me that I haven’t already heard and ignored, I’m listening.

But in the interest of my friend’s birthday, and all the thinking it’s got me doing, and the fact that it’s the end of June and I need to produce something of consequence on this blog, here are a few answers to those questions above, from my corner of the world, as I understand things to be, at this moment in time—realizing that I haven’t yet entered my own fourth decade (though it’s fast approaching), and knowing full well my answers will probably change at 50. Or with the next election. Or when Saturn moves (come on, Saturn—I learned my lessons already, OK?).

And if the following smacks of advice, don’t worry. You are free and clear to take from it what you want and leave the rest. You are even free and clear to leave all of it and go watch whatever’s on HGTV. And you are free and clear, of course, to scoff at mine and come up with your own answers, even if you’re 23 and just graduated from college or spending your 88th year in a rocking chair remembering the time when…

So here goes.

What I’ve learned:

1.    We are what we eat. Not just a cliché! I should’ve started eating better at an earlier age. But knowing what I know now has saved me doctor visits, money, extra pounds, and sanity.
2.    On that note, exercise more. Even when it aches. Even when you’re tired. As my chiropractor used to say: “Life is motion. When you stop moving, you die.” (I may have added that last part for dramatic flair).
3.    And on that note, drinking alcohol is highly over-rated. Nothing served by a bartender is truly pleasurable unless in the smallest possible quantity. Yes, this includes wine. Yes, this applies to anything over one glass. Besides, a hangover means you’re probably not moving too well. See #2.
4.    No one really has a clue what they’re doing, ever, including me. That’s why we look around at everyone else all the time.
5.    Which is why suspending judgment, of ourselves and others—even for a millisecond—is a worthwhile endeavor.
6.    Stress, fear, frustration—they’re all largely self-created. I’ve learned to get a handle on these through meditation, prayer of a non-religious sort, nature walks, silence, writing, reading…whatever mechanism feels good to me at the time.
7.    But just when I feel I have a handle on something, I discover I have much, MUCH further to go.
8.    Some things in life require discipline, including but not limited to setting aside money for quarterly taxes, getting enough sleep, following a calling, parenting, meeting a deadline, doing a good job—at anything. The rigors of life are no picnic if you don’t have discipline. Fortunately, growing up a dancer, I learned this lesson early on.
9.    The world is both bigger and smaller than what I previously thought it to be.
10.    The older I get, the less I know. (Someone said that—a person named Pam Ferris, I think). And may I add: never a truer statement there was.

What I’ve gained so far:

1.    Trust—in the mysterious ways and workings of the universe, in myself, in others (albeit in a less generous dose)
2.    Love in all its guises—sappy, humble, confounding, fierce, heart-pounding, all-encompassing, exhausting, accepting, amazing
3.    A few crow’s feet and occasionally grumpy vertebrae
4.    Skills—some useful, some not; weird habits; odd cravings; stubborn rigidities—some admitted to, some not
5.    A whole lot of stories, best told around a table late at night to my sister or my girlfriends

What I’ve lost:

1.    Unchecked cynicism
2.    That horrific sense of panic when something doesn’t go right (I like to think)
3.    Deep sadnesses, old hurts, festering wounds…to the extent that I may still remember them, but don’t carry them with me daily
4.    Hatred—of myself and others
5.    Reliance on anyone or anything to tell me how things are or should be (including the news, self-proclaimed experts, women’s magazines, popular blogs, politicians, social media, conventional wisdom of all kinds, consumer product companies, and what can be deemed orthodoxy in industry, government, religion, economics, medicine, and culture)

What I’m contributing:

1.    My writing, as much as I can, as much as gets out there
2.    The female role in an undefined, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants family unit, and the “intergalactic wife” (not yet recognized by the state) to a wonderful, lovable man
3.    A number of possibly aggravating, possibly unanswerable questions posed often and without remorse
4.    Not enough yet, evidently

What’s necessary:

1.    All the best human attributes of kindness, compassion, humility, bravery, surrender, and resilience
2.    Preposterous theories
3.    Laughter
4.    Art, science, and mysticism—in equal measure
5.    Free will
6.    True friendship
7.    Whatever you conceive a soul mate to be, but only when ready
8.    Whatever you conceive family to be
9.    A white sand beach, undiscovered…as yet…by me
10.    Deep breaths when the wheels are coming off
11.    Deep belief that the wheels will be replaced
12.    Taking stock from time to time
13.    Wishing a happy birthday to a dear friend, cleverly disguised in the form of a random blog post, which is to say, inserting reverence and appreciation for the human connections we have in whatever ways we know how

119 thoughts on “The Fourth Decade

  1. I’m still in my teen years but this is a great post.
    I agree with #4 beneath what I’ve learned. It reminds me a lot of a quote I once read that says something like we are all just stumbling in the dark pretending that the sun is illuminating our way.

  2. An interesting list to say the least. Quite serious, though. I was hoping to laugh a bit more. Shall I pick it apart in a critic’s voice? Critique it from the gut? I think not. In my 55 years I agree with some things on your lists, naturally. However – I fear my wisdom too flawed to pass down in generalities. I usually only give advice if asked. That is unless I have true experience where the subject matter is concerned. And of course when danger is eminent… like, “Don’t open that door. I opened it once and a lion can out.”

    Good post. Thought provoking. —Mark—

  3. I think it’s interesting how some things don’t really make any sense until you reach a certain age. Like time fleeting … you can’t really fathom what it means as a young person. But then you reach 40 and time just zips by, years mash together, you’re constantly wondering why it’s already the middle or the end of the year.

    And because of this you learn to let go in ways that you couldn’t really let go as your younger self. Small, petty things no longer bother you (who has time?) and big important things mean more, or you finally realize what they are in your life.

    • Excellent reply and so very true. I’m into my 60’s and have come to realize that all those things that I thought were so damned important in my 30’s and 40’s (like parenting, setting economic priorities for the sake of being a “responsible adult”, pursuing a career at all costs, making personal sacrifices because society compelled it of me, etc.) were not really that important in the long term after all. If someone had told me when I was in my 40’s that all this wouldn’t mean a tinker’s damn in my 60’s I would never have believed them. But then again… who ever listens to older folks give advice anyway? The older you get the less people want to listen to you… much like kids ignoring their parents’ wisdom. Like I told my kids when they each became teenagers at 13… “You have now reached the age where you know more than your parents. I’ll just sit back and YOU can run the show for a while.”

  4. Oh 40 is THE BEST! For the first time, You know WHAT you are doing, and you still have the energy to actually DO IT. You truly come into your own at 40, oh YAH its soo gOOD if you just embrace the moment.. Will anyone else tell you that? Maybe not but its easy to find out for yourself how true it is.

  5. wow, you said a lot in a short amount of time and it sounds so real, not the the mechanical sort form the self help books. Its past midnight here in India, last thing I am reading before going to bed and I am glad that I did. Thank you

  6. As a 30 year old, this is a great list that I could relate to! I like how you don’t take yourself too seriously. Life is about quality not necessarily quantity, at least that’s what I believe!

  7. I would say that people only know what they want to know so when someone turns a certain age u might still not know certain things I’m not sure if I’m making any sense. But I loved the post 🙂

  8. Leaving aside my terrible english ( i’m from chile), i was wondering the same questions that you make in this column. I think its a process that we all live when we are close to a new decade ( im 28 now). Greetings! Nice text!

  9. Thoroughly enjoyed this post in it’s lighthearted tone, speaking to some major topics of the heart, characteristics of faith, and getting older. #4, 5 & 6 on the What I’ve Learned list all spoke deeply to me. I love Elizabeth Lesser’s take on the idea that we’re all “Bozos on the bus.” She says we all think we’re on the Bozo bus and everyone else all all their shit together on another bus, looking all perfect and pretty. But, in fact, we’re all on the Bozo bus. I remind myself of that often. I am also currently writing about my realizations around self-created stress, fear and frustration. I’m currently fighting postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of my 4th child, while recovering from a marriage to an addict and 21 deaths in 5 years. Even with all the “bad” things that have happened to me, I realize that most of my stress and fear is still self-created, and that a little shift in perspective through my soul food of meditation, writing, reading, etc. can turn everything around in an instant. Doesn’t mean I negate the negative emotions – they are my teachers, too – but I’m getting better at walking through them more peacefully now! Thank you for sharing, and congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!!!! Big accomplishment you can now add to the “What I’m Contributing” pile!!!!

  10. Great post! I hit 40 last November. My life was INSANE at the time so I didn’t really have a chance to sit and think about it. I have since then and I did before hand & 40 didn’t and doesn’t bother me. I was blessed with great genes so I don’t look anywhere near 40 and I also don’t feel it – if I even know what it’s supposed to feel like. I know that I hit a fork in the road and life changed and at 40 I feel like I have the confidence & I hope that I have the wisdom to pull off the next decade flawlessly as possible.

  11. Wow, something for all to take away! Introspection, Analysis, Planning and and Intention to make good use of what we have learnt so far and what more we can learn from others!
    Great piece Amanda!

  12. Well, this post clearly guides me on how to live my life, to avoid the mistakes, to eat healthy, to exercise more, etc.. Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your experience throughout the years 🙂

  13. Great advice (with a fine dash of humour). I’m keeping them for when I turn 25. And 26. And 27…. I’m keeping them always.

    And you’re right– we don’t ever know what we’re doing and that’s all right 🙂

    Happy belated birthday to your friend.

  14. you can’t really fathom what it means as a young person. But then you reach 40 and time just zips by, years mash together, you’re constantly wondering why it’s already the middle or the end of the year.

  15. “No one really has a clue..”

    I love number 4. I’m turning 25 this year and I feel this everytime. Your post is so inspiring.

  16. Good stuff. I’m past that milestone and almost halfway to the next one. And I love it! Except when my knees hurt after a run, or when my doctor suggests I have a colonoscopy, or another decades old filling falls out and I have to get a root canal. Besides all of that, it’s really, really good. I’m better at loving others and more gentle with myself. I’m patient and confident and good at pretending that I know what I’m doing. And I have don’t have a lot but I have more money than I ever have. Being 40 something is great!!

  17. Agh! As a reader I stopped right before you started (specially since life has also been teaching me on this) so in advance thank you writing and as sad as I picture life then something hits me and tells me no dream on and all tho I’m only 23 And new to writing I look fwrd to feeling this way one day ❤️🎈 Happy birthday everyday specially if you truly know happiness #lifeisbeautiful

  18. This is a great post. I was at a party last year and 3 of us, all in various stages of our 30s, sat on the stairs with a bottle of wine amongst the seemingly confident, competent, successful crowd and pondered if everyone else was just really good at faking adulthood it if we really were deficient somehow.

  19. Aw! Such a great post. Coming to the end of my fourth decade, I can tell you you’re right on target. Loved every word. Cheers! And congrats on the FP.

  20. This is very true time flies. But during the time we are here we make our mark on the earth if 1 person in the world on this planet want here everything would be different.

  21. Reblogged this on thatingenue and commented:
    Not yet 40, but it is always great to learn from what others have learnt. It is like a shortcut in life, learning what 40 year-olds learn at age 16.

  22. Perfect serindipity, u can say.. Was looking for such blog, thanks for your friend to enter into 40’s, if it was not her i would have not read such a wonderful post.. Would agree to almost all of the items in the list.. Wish my memory was strong enough to hold all of it.. I had to read it over again to be able to absorb most from this piece.. I am in my late twenties and in a stage perhaps where most of the list grows.. This is where you are in your midlife, i would say.. Well the blog was wonderful giving me an insight of your learnings because the learnings are from experiences and i am in the stage of experiencing.. Am a huge fan of Sex AND the city.. I guess thats what you were referring to in the blog..

  23. I’m still coming up with my versions of the other lists, but I really love your list of necessities. And in case you wanted to know, I’m almost into my third decade. Looking forward to reading more preposterous theories and questions!

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