“It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.” –Andy Rooney
“How did it get so late so soon?” –Dr. Seuss
“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” –Charles Darwin
I just turned 50. I am embarrassed to admit that it was hard for me to type that sentence. I am still not quite there yet. Fifty sounds OLD! Whether it is or isn’t, I will leave that for you to debate. It still sounds that way to me. And I guess I am not yet at that place of acceptance or surrender or whatever you want to call it that will have me agreeing that I am OLD. Because if I agree, what does it say about what I have left in me? Not much time, and even less vigor to do what I need to do it with. I need some time to sit with that one. Sadly (or ironically or something), time is the one thing in short supply here. It is tough turning 50!
I started processing 50 the moment I turned 49. It was the first time I could no longer deny it. At 48, I could still convince myself I was in my mid-forties. Sure, it was a stretch, but I was in the mood for a stretch at that point. When 49 came around, though, that was it. I started telling myself I was already 50 just to get used to the idea. I guess I wanted to soften the blow, to normalize the whole concept of being in my fifties. I said it over and over. I could tell it wasn’t really sinking in, though.
I blame my grandparents and my great-uncles and great-aunts. My Mom’s parents, as was common back then, married in their early twenties and started having kids. My Grandma had two sisters, and the three of them and their husbands were the best of friends and hung out together–though they called it “visiting,” which makes me smile now to remember, as they are all gone from this world except for these beautiful memories–as often as they could. They were all great to us kids, and I loved them. But they were definitely OLD to me. They had things like false teeth and canes and pipes—genuine Old People stuff. But they were in their fifties! At least when I got to know them they were. I’m sure they had jobs and mowed their yards and built stuff. You know, regular adult activities, not senile, nursing home activities. None of that registered to me, though. They were OLD. Period. End of story. I think that first impression of fifty-somethings being OLD really stuck. I didn’t expect to ever get that old, but if I were to get there, then surely I would be OLD, too. It’s logical.
Well, here I am. Fifty-something.
Getting over the sound of it is one thing. That will take its own time. And hey, that’s the silly, unimportant part of this process. The much more salient part for me is to figure out what being 50 years into my life means. In essence, it puts the spotlight on the question: Where am I in my lifetime, and what does that mean I have left?
Over the past year of processing this, I have probably approached it in almost every possible way. At different points I have decided I am right where I need to be and also nowhere close to what I should have done; feeling great for my age and feeling like a rickety dinosaur; believing I have special things still to create and lamenting that I don’t have time to create them; and just about every other dichotomy you could dream up. And I’ve not just ridden the extremes. I have also slid subtly along the spectrum of any imaginable scale of optimism, despair, or acceptance. Basically, I’ve learned it’s going to be a weird and complicated psychological ride on the way toward making any semblance of peace with my age from this point forward. Ambivalence will be my constant companion. That’s unsettling to me. But whoever said this stuff was easy?
Although I have tested out every mindset and approach to turning 50, the one that seems to be settling in now that I am actually here is the sense of urgency to do the things now. All of them. As soon as possible. It is an overwhelming sense of “I’m running out of time!” I keep wondering: How many years do I have left? And to put a finer point on it since I both work in education and naturally adore Summer, it usually comes down to this: How many Summers do I have left?
This Summer I spent working hard to complete the first draft of my next book. It felt amazing but also highly pressing. I was keenly aware every day that Summer was short and I had to take advantage. That is a microcosm of how I am feeling about what remains of my life at this stage: there isn’t much left and I better use every bit of it wisely.
I’m guessing there are lots of people out there who would look at it completely differently. Like, “Hey, I’m only 50. The average life expectancy is around 79. I’ve got a solid three decades to go. That’s plenty of time for accomplishment, adventure, and a relaxing retirement. What’s the rush?” I can see that point-of-view. I get it. It just isn’t me.
For one, I simply never pictured a very long life for myself. I hope I have lots of healthy, happy, and productive years ahead of me, but the vision doesn’t come naturally. The other thing is, during the process of writing this letter, one of my best friends from childhood died. Forty-nine years old and gone. He didn’t even make the 50 that I am bellyaching about! In the midst of my grieving these last few days, a thought has occasionally slipped free of the fog in my mind: There are no guaranteed days left. It could end any time.
Of course that is true every day since your arrival on Earth, but it never feels true when you are young, right? Today, though, when I am thinking about my friend’s kids who no longer have their Dad and his wife who no longer has her husband, it feels very, very true. Life is so darn short. And whether I make it to 51 or 81, I am well beyond the halfway mark now and the end will be here before I am ready for it. That clarity is enough to make me feel older than I want to be.
The bottom line is that turning 50 has ramped up my urgency to be the person I feel I was born to be and to do the things that make me feel joy, fulfillment, and sure that my presence here was a net-positive for the world, especially for the people whose lives I have touched. This sense of urgency and responsibility is something I imagine will only increase as I age, especially as I monitor and recognize my continued failure to reach the standards I have set for myself. I simply must rise to the occasion that is this beautiful Life. I will start immediately, because I have A LOT to do!
How about you? Have you made peace with your age and where you are in the cycle of Life? Open up your journal and sort yourself out in its pages. How old are you? When you say it, what feelings does it bring up? Do you cringe, even just slightly? How old do you feel in your mind? Do you fancy yourself much more young and carefree than you actually are? What percentage of people do you think actually feel OLD inside? How does your physical health affect your perception of your age? How does the way your body feels compare to the way your mind feels? Do you imagine that gap will only get wider with age, or how do you see your disparity changing? How much does age matter to you? Is it something you think about often? Does it stress you out at all? Do you dread your milestone birthdays that announce to the world that you are in the next decade? Has your view on which age is actually OLD changed as you have aged? At this point, what is the age when you start thinking of people as OLD? Are you included in that group? If so, does that bother you, or have you come to terms with it? If you are not yet what you consider to be OLD, how do you think you will handle your arrival there? At your age, what is your best guess about how much longer you will be around? With that number in mind, how urgent is the need to get going on things you plan to accomplish before you go? What are the things you have left to do in order to look back with a sense of fulfillment and peace about your time here? Which is the most pressing? What is one small step you can take today to move forward on that goal? I hope you take that step. Leave me a reply and let me know: Have you come to terms with your age?
Wishing you the most beautiful life,
P.S. It today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. Our awareness of our own journey improves the intertwining journeys of everyone around us.
P.P.S. If this type of self-reflection for the purpose of growth is appealing to you, consider buying my book Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.