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. Hi – new to your blog, nice post! My feeling is that age is just a marker which is constructed by society’s expectation of us. At 20, we should be in college. At 30, we should be married with child in a home. At 40, we should be moving up the corporate ladder and have it all “under control”. We all know that is not the case! As you pointed out, no one is truly ever under control. You can be 60 and still be a mess, or 20 and have it all figured out. We just need to forget about age and live our lives in our own unique ways that will be happiness to us and those around us!!

  2. As a person riding the express train towards my 6th decade, I would say you are right on track. As cliche as it sounds, time really does go faster as you get older. There is math behind that – each day represents a smaller fraction of your overall lifespan, therefore it appears to move more quickly compared to blah blah blah de blah. You have nailed a few very important things. Laugh. Love. Friendship. Learn. Movement. Resist the urge to spend more time looking backwards, and continue to look ahead.

    Well done. Nice piece.

  3. Birthdays marking a new decade routinely raise depression and suicide rates as well as motivate transformation. Heidegger, among others, noted our authenticity’s relationship to keeping our death at hand, present. The awareness of mortality, bringing death close, strengthens the odds of sparking gratitude inventories.
    I enjoyed your take on 40.
    40 was traumatic, 50 was celebratory, and 55 is the best yet for embarking on the world of senior discounts 😉

  4. I wouldn’t say the older we get the less we know. I would say the older we get the more we know that we don’t know a lot. Thanks to Donald For that….lol.

  5. THANK YOU. I’ve still got a generous chunk of my thirties left, in a bit of a mess, and I find myself juuuussst climbing over the edge and catching a peek at some of the truths you shared here. Sometimes when you need a bit of clarity, you find it in a random birthday post! Hey – if I already know that I know nothing at all, does that make me precocious? 😉

  6. Wow how timely your post is :-)… I just crossed this marker myself & have been mentally adjusting. While there really is no difference physically between a few weeks ago & now, mentally I’m an unrolling ball of confusion. It’s nice to be reminded once again that I’m not alone in this & it’s not personal, just inevitable :-)…

  7. Very well written! I especially like your lists… 🙂 all of them! Eating well, exercising and staying off alcohol are the three best secrets to a happy life I think. I also love to write, travel and read, and inspire others to life their best life. Would love you to check out some of my posts! X

  8. This is what I love about the “big” birthdays – they force us to reflect and make plans for the future. Are we happy with where we are and what we have done with our lives? Is there something we want to do but aren’t doing? Last year when I turned 30, I started this blog – something I should have done years ago! But at least I finally got started, and some of my first posts were similar to this one. I also made a list of specific things I want to accomplish in the next decade of my life. And I’m proud to say that I’ve already done some of them!

  9. I really appreciate you saying “no one has a clue what they’re doing.” many days I feel like the only one who is just pretending to be a grown up and a parent and a 40 year old woman because everyone else knows what they’re doing! ❤

  10. Interesting piece.
    I turned 40 in December and it still smarts… More than all the others that went before. Why? I think because it really does mark the end of Youth. People have started adding “…for her age” to things they say about me. I feel like I see the potential I had at 20 and it doesn’t compare well to what I have made of it since then. And although I still have some time, there are things I will never do now. I will do other things, though, I hope. Things I hadn’t thought about when I was young.
    Let us know how you get on when you blow out those 40 candles.
    Also, I’m curious: what form do your non-religious prayers take?

  11. True that and agreed on all! I am 42, feel better in many ways than I did at the reverse of my numbers (24), except for the acute loss of energy – maybe having 3 kids, being a divorced single parent with a busy career, a mortgage, and running 20-30 miles a week is why?! 😉 I do not feel over 40, and having looked back at my idea of what a 40-something-year-old was, I cannot see myself that way. I feel like I am still in my 20’s – I love to rock out to heavy metal, go dancing, run, be playful with my kids as well as my students, hang out with friends, flirt, dress up in cute clothes (shop in the juniors section – the “women’s section” reminds me of old school mom jeans and boxy shirts, stuff old ladies wear), and when I look in the mirror, I only see a few extra wrinkles (no gray – hair dye rocks!), and I still weigh the same and fit into the same size as I did when I graduated from high school. Turning 40 bothered me somewhat, as in solely for the fact of what my 16-year-old calls me being “middle-aged” and nearly half-way to my death (teenagers can be so rude). However, I do have to agree with the fact that I have learned a lot in life, and have come to the realization that a lot of things do not matter, like what others think of me, that I should not focus on regrets as my past is what made me who I am, to stop worrying so much about what I cannot control, and just focus on living my life the way that makes me feel the happiest. It is interesting how age changes one’s mindset, but I strongly believe that those people who have continued to learn and grow, and take away lessons to apply to life are much happier than those 40-something’s who are still stuck at where they were at 20 mentally and emotionally. I hope if anything that you embrace turning 40 as this: an opportunity to be at peace with yourself and your choices, and happy to really know who are and what matters most to you in life. For me, it was celebrating being at a place where I am stable in life (with my career and financially) as well as my personal life, that I could sit back and finally enjoy the benefits of what I spent my 20’s and 30’s trying to achieve. That in itself is priceless. Lastly, I picked up a fabulous new hobby (race running) and I feel more fit than I ever have, so just remember age is only a number, as you are only as old as you allow yourself to be. Great piece/perspective in your writing, and I look forward to hearing how turning 40 goes for you!

  12. I really did want to pick a number. I tried to a favorite number from your lists and then I realized I don’t have to because I can take with me as I go. You made me think, reflect and want to dig deeper on my own list. Cool approach to a post and to life. I like your “no nonsense” and “this is me-take or leave vibe. Feeling inspired!

  13. I absolutely loved this article – I have entered the 4- faze in life and can relate to everything you have written. If only we could go back in time and make a few smarter decisions…

  14. Love it. 41.5 years old here. Beautiful. I laughed in recognition of myself many times. Most of my reading experience was “yes! Yes, that’s it! Oh and that’s so true too!”

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