Avoiding Being Defined by the Aging Process
I just turned 50 and decided to look back on my life. I am dividing life into decades because it is clean and easy. In actuality, life is a continuum and these divisions are arbitrary, but we like to categorize and we like multiples of 10. Call me a conformist, but I need structure of some sort and this is what I chose.
I am completely omitting the formative years prior to my 20s. One of the main reasons I believe in God is that I made it through the many mistakes of my teen years pretty much physically unscathed. I did many stupid things that I prefer not to mention or even recall. Let’s just leave it at that.
So my assessment of life in our 20s is that this is the time to try things. It is a time to explore and learn who we are. We figure out our values. We learn that things we thought we would like might not work for us and that things we never thought we would like might please us. We start to figure out our place in the world. It is a time filled with mistakes and learning. We start to become whole people.
In my early 20s, I spent a lot of my free time in bars and at parties. In retrospect, I drank a lot. So did my peers. Most of what we did in our leisure time involved alcohol and it was often kind of out of control. My solution was to eliminate my free time by going to night school. I’m sure there were lots of other ways to cut down on drinking. I chose this one. I had a lot of fun in my 20s. I went to some great parties, met lots of new people, and worked at a couple of jobs trying to figure out where I fit in professionally and socially. I made a lot of bad dating choices. I think I reestablished my relationship with my parents to be a more honest and mature connection. I also did some traveling out of the country and learned that I could function and be content on my own and in many different environments.
Then we hit our 30s. We now pick a direction. My 30th birthday was my final day of graduate school and the day I closed on my house. I really felt like I was grown up all of a sudden. There was a sense of getting settled and focusing. I felt I was starting to hit some sort of stride. I started having relationships that had longer durations, not that endurance should be a goal. I stayed at my job and tried to be an asset to the company. I didn’t party nearly as much and I spent my energy on fewer and closer friendships. I still tried new things and welcomed new opportunities. I hope that curious and adventurous part of my value system never changes. Although I was more settled than in my 20s, I was still hitting my stride. It was in my 30s that I met a long-term romantic partner. I also got my first dog. I spent more time in my home. I was building a foundation of stability and order.
Then I entered my 40s. This was a time of change for me. My observation is that people in their 40s either hit a stride, change directions, or become bitter. I switched careers. At his time in my life, I had friends who had achieved things. I could often introduce friends to people who could help them. I knew people with power and success and knowledge. I would read magazines and newspapers and know many of the people mentioned. I understood most references in the news and in pop culture. This is the decade when I quit working in manufacturing and concentrated my efforts on building the Acorn Theater as a business. I served on a number of not-for-profit boards and tried to figure out ways to use my skills and contacts. I became more introspective and thoughtful. I was less impulsive. I also, sadly, spent less time with my close friends. Projects such as the theater, family and volunteer work became time consuming and my interactions were fewer and often less personal because they were electronic and not in person. I love my friends but I didn’t spend as much time with them.
In my 40s, my father passed away and my mother’s health problems became more pronounced and invasive, though my mother had severe health issues that became evident when I was 5 years old. Without my father as her primary support, her health issues weighed heavier on me, at least emotionally. I made a more concerted effort to be more present in her life. Many of my friends ended long-term relationships and marriages. Many of my loved ones got ill, and many passed away. I started becoming an elder statesman of sorts, even if I didn’t feel I was old enough or had earned my stripes. Sometimes it felt like I was becoming everyone’s surrogate dad. My decisions and problems felt definitively more adult. Life and the world often seemed to be trying to beat the shit out of me in various ways. I started having to take pills daily for high cholesterol, though I started working out on a regular basis. I felt like I was at a point where I kind of understood the world to an extent and where I fit in.
I am writing this in an attempt to pass on this observation to my contemporaries. Once I realized that bitterness was trying to overtake me, I was able to change it.
I can’t tell you what my 50s will bring but I can tell you what I consider my biggest challenge at this point in life, and that is to not become angry and bitter. There is a drive to create stability in an unstable world. Parents get ill and pass away. Friends break up and get divorced. Friends have health issues. Friends get angry and bitter. Until you recognize it, it is hard to fight it. Some people become grandparents and that seems to mellow them and take off the edge. I will not be a grandparent and most of my peers are not yet grandparents. I started taking pills for high blood sugar. I know that where my body used to take care of me, now it is payback and I need to take care of it. It screams out for maintenance.
I am writing this in an attempt to pass on this observation to my contemporaries. Once I realized that bitterness was trying to overtake me, I was able to change it. I don’t want to be cranky and unpleasant. I have a choice and I choose to revel in the good things as much as possible. I have to deal with the challenges of life but I don’t have to let them totally kick my ass. I don’t have control over much but I can try to be cognizant of my attitude and try to adjust at times. That is something I hope my friends will take to heart and join me in appreciating the good times, the opportunities that arise, and the beauty we encounter. If we can avoid the perpetual complaining and bitterness, to communicate not through tragedy and unhappiness alone, and to stop fixating on all the negatives in our lives, we can avoid being defined by the aging process.
This is not to say that I won’t have my moods and my times where I express dissatisfaction or frustration. I just won’t live in that place for perpetuity. I will climb out of those holes, breathe, and move forward. I have a lot more life behind me than ahead of me and I don’t want to waste the time I have left being angry. It may be tempting but I can fight temptation. That’s something I have learned through living into this decade. And though I embrace this phase of life, I am not above lying about my age and pretending I’m still hitting the stride of my 40s.
I hope to be able to report back on what life in my 50s is like. I have a lot of living to do before getting to that point. My prediction is that my challenge of this decade will be learning and facing limitations. I hope it is more about pride, satisfaction, and achievement. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out.