Life’s defining moments do not always announce themselves with the glorious fanfare of positive celebration. There can be the unwelcome milestones of big birthdays, the loss of an elderly, iconic family relative or trauma (I can remember puberty). They can just come out of nowhere silently and with a soundless impact.
Three years ago I experienced just such a moment. Early one morning when out with the dog, my brain unplugged itself and the lights were on but no one was home – more so than usual. I remember thinking ‘This is the kind of life-changing thing that happens to old people, not me’ as I was unable to move or speak but observe lots of clever, caring people doing stuff to me as I lay in hospital.
Eventually my brain rebooted and my mind rewound itself back up enough to formulate a conscious intention but the neural pathways still slumbered. The next couple of months were enforced recuperation with chess, Sudoku and canasta to complete the rewiring, and thereafter I got on with things as if nothing had happened.
Looking back, I recognise now this period impacted me much more than I thought at the time. It was like some bizarre prefiguring of my future life, a bad fortune telling of my tea leaves. From that moment, I’ve never regained an absolute trust that my body will automatically fall into line with my will, rather it will falter and fail. I can no longer depend on it to function properly as this incident was solid indication that my youth had ended and middle age begun.
These days we are persistently told that age is just a number, that 40 is the new 30, and 50 the new 40. Odd then that entire cohorts of the cosmetics and medical industries are dedicated to rolling back the effects of passing time. We are all living healthily for longer, working later and shunning the putting out to pasture we once happily greeted as well earned retirement.
Today, I just dismiss my brain switch-off as ‘one of those things’ and fortunately the random stream of consciousness output that comes from what I have between my ears is still pretty good. I still do stuff, work and have a good social life. I switch and click between being husband, son, father and friend. I am nowhere near the end of my productive life. And yet I know as surely as day is not night that one season of my life has ended and another begun. I’m not maudlin, just poignant at the passing of time.
So what’s brought this self-reflection on? Ok, it was my birthday at the weekend and another page on the calendar was torn off. I took it badly, as you can probably gather by now. I turned 52. Bloody hell, 52. Old. I am now officially middle aged. Still got my own teeth and hair mind you. I’ll admit that it remains fuzzy as to whether middle age qualifies as a biologically distinct phase of life (one that comes with its own neurological and biochemical map) or is just a label we give to a period of mental adjustment that helps us accommodate vague feelings of loss.
Then again, perhaps it is merely a socio-cultural construction, a shorthand way of dividing people up by their attitudes and lifestyle choices? Beginning, Middle and End. When the term ‘middle age’ came into general use in the late C19th it was principally in a socio-economic setting. Empire and industrialisation had expanded and enriched the middle classes, and women who had finished raising children could enjoy another decade or two of vigour and relevance. The negative tarnish came with the mass production of the 1920s and the theories of scientific management that underpinned it, sharpening our association of youth with productivity and middle age with decreasing efficiency.
This chimes with my sense that we shift this way and that, mentally and physically, and it’s a labeling of bodily decline in defining the idea that middle age is a kind of subjective reckoning. I’m picturing a Venn diagram that captures the intersection of three factors – physicality, mentality and spirituality – middle age is that shady area where the circles overlap, where the light is fading and the chill of winter starts to set in. The specific age at which we enter this penumbra is different for each of us, but the common quality is a profound sense of alteration and a dawning understanding, dim at first, that there is no point of re-entry to the bright terrain of youth.
As I gear up to turn 52, what has lodged in my mind is that it is a mathematical near-certainty that I have passed the halfway mark. That from now on growing older will be less about marking the age I’ve arrived at than about counting down what is left. At 52 I will quite literally be over the hill; ahead of me, the incline runs downwards. And it doesn’t end well.
Although I can see determined resistance to ageing into the inner weakness it betrays, I don’t believe for a minute that self-denial is any better. Besides, when I journey down that path promising myself I will stop hurling spokes into the spinning dials of my body clock, I find that I’m still far from happy about ageing. I feel unprepared for it. Caught on the hop. Exposed. Most of the time I pretend it isn’t happening, only to be pulled up short by that terrible sense of dissonance occasioned. Greying hairs on my temples look back at me from the mirror, lest I forget.
But I’m a positive fella really, just tend to think and overthink too much. I’m actually more ambitious about doing stuff than I was last year, got an expanded list of things to do, it’s just that I enjoy the juxtaposition of ‘What if?’, ‘So What?’ and ‘If Only’. So what’s in my road map to create an expansive and lasting network, my manifesto to shape new innovations for myself as I hurtle to middle age tranquility?
If you’re not doing something hard, you’re wasting your time When you’ve been through a lot, you know that the best times are when you get through them. You know that feeling when you’re working right at the edge of your capability and you’re so engaged in trying and failing and trying more that time just flies? That’s when you’re really testing yourself. Ask yourself every day, every week, ‘What is something hard that I can tackle?
Life is actually really, really random Bad things will happen to you, you will fail and things outside of your control will happen. You need to lean into this, and expect things to be messy. Remember, the other side of randomness is that some really great things can and do happen. When they do, don’t balk at the opportunity, seize the day.
Get good at using your time The most important thing you have is time because you can’t make more of it. Think about every use of your time and give it all equal weight. Recognise that grunt work takes time just as much as learning takes time. Figure out what you like doing, what extends your capabilities the most, and organise your time to strike the right balance. Ideally, this leaves some space for reflection and sleep. If you don’t give yourself space, there won’t be any room for good, random things to happen to you.
The 20-40-60 rule The rule goes something like this: At 20, you are constantly worrying about what other people think of you. At 40 you wake up and say, ‘I’m not going to give a damn what other people think anymore.’ And at 60 you realise no one is thinking about you at all. Actually, nobody is thinking about you from the very beginning. Of course, this is good news and bad news. The bad news is that no one is constantly wondering if you’re okay, consequently, you need to be your own advocate. You need to think about you. You need to do stuff for yourself.
Success starts with self-mastery Self-mastery is being in control of the internal thought processes that guide your emotions, habits, and behaviors. It’s the ability to direct rather than react. The former is done with intention and awareness, the latter is visceral and without reason. Self-mastery is captured well in this quote attributed to many: “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Talk to yourself There’s a voice inside your head, and that’s completely normal. It’s your internal dialogue, the inner commentary that strives to make sense of the world. The first crucial step is to become an observer of your thoughts, to become self-aware, self-reflective. To think about your thinking. Become the best version of yourself you can be. I give myself a good talking too every morning and it’s always a lively conversation and debate.
Make peace with your past We’re not just the sum total of our experiences, self-mastery tells us we have got new things to learn ahead of us, so we’re certainly not confined to them. It’s not easy to do, at times I do find myself nostalgic, in a positive way, but do let events and memories seep deep into my soul. Fortunately I have no regrets, I would imagine it’s hard to pick up anything new when your hands are full with burdens.
Don’t be a bystander I’ve always taken an active approach to life, being a performer rather than a spectator. There’s no room for passivity and sitting on the bench. Don’t hesitate, just do it. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, so make a difference. I think I get this positivity from my parents, and it’s a personal trait I’ve instilled in my kids too. As Tennessee Williams said ‘Make voyages, attempt them, there’s nothing else’.
Have a positive mindset This psychological strategy can be understood in the question, Is the glass half empty or half full? It’s changing your interpretive lens to uncover the best version of events there can be. Give yourself a call to action to define how you want to do things. It’s easy to write your own manifesto, and while you don’t have to do it in a specific way, figure out what you care about, how you perceive yourself, and how you want to act moving forward. It’s not always a key to figuring out exactly what you want to do with your life, but it’s a great starting point for at least figuring out how you want to go about those goals.
In our formative years, we fancy ourselves doing this or that, life is all before us and open to adventure. But life may have led us to do neither. Later, in maturity, what draws our attention is usually something that has bid for it on previous occasions and we’ve left it out of journey, and they keep calling out to us: Don’t forget me, please don’t forget. As I get older I find there is usually something about a spontaneous affinity when we recall a memory that remains pertinent to our present.
You can’t know where your quest will take you, but do it with vitality. The most valuable knowledge that you will ever discover is, and always will be, within. So as I elbow my way into middle age, I reflect on the past- where a takeaway was a mathematical problem, a Big Mac was what we put on when it was raining, when you had to peel potatoes if you wanted chips at home, and water came out of a tap; if someone suggested bottling it and charging more for it you’d have laughed out loud.
But more importantly, I’m interested in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my time there. As Steve Jobs said, ‘you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future’.
There’s always a moment when the door opens and lets the future in, and I’ll be barging right in there with my manifesto outlined above, which I hope you found useful. My brain is working well, but sometimes plays tricks – I just looked in the mirror and thought, ‘who’s that old man staring back at me?’ Then I realised it’s not a mirror, it’s a fish fingers box I was holding.
My blog was scribbled whilst scoffing birthday cake, reading my birthday cards and wondering when to spend my vouchers for a skydiving experience, volcano hopping or a trip to the garden centre, but I drew inspiration from Marina Benjamin, Heidi Roizen and Thai Nguyen, and some of their published work to shape my thinking and craft my words.