When I was in my early twenties, I remember hoping that I’d never lose my hair, but if I did, I hoped it would be after I turned 30 because then I wouldn’t care.
When I was 26, I worked with a guy who was 12 years older than me. I remember talking to him shortly after he attended his twentieth high school reunion. He said the prettiest girl in class was there and she still looked really good – still the prettiest girl in class. I remember thinking, “She’s 38! How could she be pretty at 38??”
Probably around this same time, I saw an interview with John Wayne that had been taped shortly before his death (he died at 72 in 1979, I saw the interview several years later). In the interview, he said he had recently seen some pictures of himself from when he was in his early forties and he marveled at what a good-looking guy he was. As I watched, my reaction was, “In your FORTIES? You think you were good looking in your FORTIES??”
I’m just shy of 55 now (28 shopping days left if you’re interested). I still have my hair – thankfully – and I still care that I have my hair. I see women in their late thirties all the time that I think are very pretty. Same goes for women who are late in decades after their thirties. I also have no problem believing that men in their forties (or fifties, sixties, etc.) can be considered good-looking. I’d like to think that I’m not entirely unpresentable myself in my middle years. All that to say – my perspective has grown with my age. The two seem to grow together, don’t they? As the numbers get larger, the perspective gets broader.
I think the perspective gets more realistic too – exponentially so after 50. When I turned 30, it was a benchmark and I paused a bit, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. When I turned 40, it was more of a benchmark and I paused for perhaps a little longer, but it again wasn’t that big of a deal. When I turned 50, however, it kind of stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly, old age wasn’t something that was a long way over the horizon. All the things that I thought I’d worry about when I was older suddenly weren’t so far away. I remember shortly after my fiftieth birthday that I looked at my retirement accounts and thought, “Yep, just keep everything invested aggressively because retirement is so far away.” Then it hit me – “Whoa, wait a minute! Retirement isn’t all that far away at all and these balances have real meaning!” That was sobering.
The thing that’s really hit me is that “someday” is now here. My whole life, I’ve always thought that who I am now isn’t really who I am, because things will be different someday. Someday I’ll have more, I’ll do more, I’ll have things figured out, my life will look different. But now that I’m in my fifties, talking about a day far in the future when things will change sounds kind of silly. It IS someday, and all the things that I assumed would be true then pretty much should have happened by now, or should be well on their way to happening. Wealth, professional achievement, a house my wife is proud of, looking good with my shirt off – those are the things I just assumed would be the case. But now that someday is here, those things aren’t. And to think things are going to change all that much from here on is likely naïve.
I realize you may be reading this and thinking, “Hey genius, you’re just having a midlife crisis like every other American male who’s reached middle age and underachieved. Why don’t you just buy a Harley and spare us the blog post?” Well, you may be right (although I think your reaction is a little cynical), but I think there’s more to it than just coming to grips with having less money and achievement than I’d hoped. I think it’s finally realizing that I can’t look toward some nebulous day in the future when I become the real me anymore; it’s here, this is it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not depressed about this and I’m not standing on a bridge ready to jump and I don’t need my guardian angel to show me how bad Bedford Falls would be if I hadn’t lived. It’s just that I’ve realized my carbon footprint is larger than any mark I’ll make on the sands of time, and that the dock is empty and no ship’s coming in.
[That’s not to say that all things are negative. When I was in high school I hoped that someday I’d have a hair style that looked good without requiring me to comb it and fix it all the time. I wanted hair that just stayed where I wanted it. THAT I’ve accomplished. I haven’t combed my hair in probably a couple of decades. Four-and-a-half on top and two on the sides – no comb, no blow-drier, no mousse. Get out of the shower and towel it dry – good to go. That’s one thing I can point to that did happen someday.]
Bill Parcels (if you’re not a sports person, he’s a legendary ex-NFL coach) is famous for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” What he meant by that is that guys on a team can talk all they want about bad breaks or injuries or calls that didn’t go their way, but at the end of the day if they have a .500 record, they’re a .500 team. I think the same goes for who you are in your fifties. You can say or think, “I know I have issues, but this isn’t really me, I’m more than this.” But you’ve had FIFTY-PLUS years to make your mark, and who you are is who you are. You are what your record says you are. To think that you’re suddenly going to shift into a different gear at this stage isn’t realistic.
That’s the cold reality that has hit me over the last five years. And while it’s not an overly cheery thought process, and at times it’s been discouraging or even panic-inducing, I also think – in the long run – it’s really healthy. Because for the first time, the utter reality of who and where I am in life has me thinking PRESENTLY.
CS Lewis said that the present is the closest thing we have to eternity *. Think about it – God is always in the present. He said His name is “I AM,” right? Not “I was” or “I will be.” So, when we live in the present – which, theoretically, never ends – we live as close to how God exists as is possible.
That being the case, the Enemy tries to get us away from the present. The Enemy wants us living in the past or the future (not the eternal future – the future in this world). Why? Because it makes us less valuable in God’s kingdom. It makes us less useful. When we’re focused on better days in the past or better times to come in the future (someday), we’re less aware of what we need to do RIGHT NOW to affect the kingdom.
That’s where the reality of the fifties comes in. When I look at who I really am and stop kidding myself and own up to it, it takes away the desire to glorify and/or regret the past because it’s what got me here and I can’t change it. And since someday is now, there’s less of a temptation to wait for when I’ll be better, stronger, faster, nicer. I suddenly have to deal with me as I am NOW and I have to decide what I need to do NOW to make this life a little more useful in God’s eyes.
So that’s where I am. I don’t have a great concluding thought to this. I can’t necessarily tell you all the changes I’ve made in my life as a result of my new perspective. As I said, it’s been a growing process over the last five years – evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But I think I’m glad it’s happened. Better now than never, and having God use my age to force me to confront some not-so-attractive stuff is ultimately a really good thing.
I realize it’s likely that when I’m in my sixties and seventies and beyond, that I’ll look back at this time and laugh at the thought that I had perspective (while also thinking, “Man, I was a good-looking guy when I was in my fifties!”). That’s OK – the bigger the laugh, the broader the perspective that’ll produce it, and the better the chance that I’ll have progressed toward the goal of having a worthy life in the eyes of my Creator.
* The humans live in time but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure. ~ CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters