Because time itself is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year: The same energy that God invested in you at birth is present once again – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
I just turned 50 a month ago.
My beautiful wife threw a birthday party for me at my in-laws beach house on the shores of Lake Erie, about fifteen miles from my fair city of Buffalo, New York, also known by locals as The City of No Illusions, the origins of which remain unknown to me.
You get a real sense of your age when all the tunes cranked out by the live band at your birthday gala are all from the sixties and seventies. No Lady GaGa tracks at this hoopla, but lots of gag gifts for the old geezer.
There’s Something About the Number
There is something momentous about turning 50. We all crunch numbers, don’t we. Those who have joined the 50 club seek a sort of mathematical revelation about its meaning: A half-century of 200 changes of the seasons, 600 full moons that have passed through the night skies from my boyhood until now.
It’s been two years since I’ve blogged about my 30th High School Return. As I drove to that event, it was like a time tunnel back to my younger self as Bachman Turner Overdrive wailed “Taking Care of Business” as I barreled down Route 78, my thinning hair flying with the breeze kicking in through my car’s window.
My dad died at age fifty-six, about six year older than I am now. That was over 30 years ago. I wonder what he thought about turning 50. I will never know.
Obama, George Clooney, Boy George and Eddie Murphy all heard the fifty gun salute this year. Fame does not delay the passing of the years, though good makeup may.
The acclaimed poet, Billy Collins, on the occasion of his 50th Birthday, wrote:
But I keep picturing the number, round and daunting:
I drop a fifty-dollar bill on a crowed street,
I carry a fifty-pound bag of wet sand on my shoulders.
I see fifty yearlings leaping a fence in the field.
I fan the five decades before me like a poker hand.
We all look backwards at 50 through the rearview mirror. We take stock of the climb from diapers to degrees, from backpacks to briefcases, from youthful meanderings to mid-life muddling.
We all remember our parents at this ripe age. They seemed so old, didn’t they? We look at ourselves in the mirror and, seemingly overnight, we have become . . . well . . . old.
My hair recedes like the waves going back out to sea, my joints crack and my energy flags around 9:30 at night. Warm milk? Not necessary as my AARP (I just got my unsolicited card in the mail) brain softly whispers to me, “Goodnight Dan”.
Life has brought plenty of trouble, pain and suffering to all of us by 50; curve balls, losses and betrayals of all types. In the balance, it’s also graced us with unadulterated joy, irony, whimsy, mischief and love. We are all challenged to learn from the negative and practice gratitude for the many blessing that have been bestowed on us and those we care about it.
I savor the words of Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations, from his book Markings, “For all that has been – Thanks. For all that shall be – Yes.”
There is a grace that comes at 50 that I didn’t have at 30 or 40; a sense of being at home in my own skin. My bones, like the roots of a mature tree in an old-growth forest, have sunk deep into the rich, brown soil. Like all people, I’ve weathered many storms. While I know that there are sure to be more to come, I have faith that I’ll still be standing after they’ve pass, that the barometric pressure will rise and that I’ll be walking in the sun again.
We hope by age 50 that we’ve becoming wiser. That in taking stock of our lives at the three-quarter turn of the track, we are able to distill something essential about how to live a good life.
I think there’s some grit that comes at the half-century mark. We have less tolerance of others’ bullshit and, hopefully, our own. Having lived long enough, we know the truth even if we can’t articulate it. I admire people who can tell the truth with wit, irony, humility and a sense of decency. They don’t belittle others, nor are they arrogant or closed-minded about contrarian views. I always walk away from such people enlightened by such people and marvel that in speaking their own truth they give permission for others to speak theirs as well.
Maybe few of us tell the truth all the time. So don’t be so hard on yourself. But bites and pieces of it well chewed, like my grandmother’s sweet potato pie, make for good digestion.
Garrision Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, wrote in Things to Do When You Turn 50:
“Start telling the truth. In small doses at first and then gradually build up to one out of three, a decent batting average. When you’re young, you’re scared, you’re trying to wend your way through the trees and not get shot at, you’re trying to stay on the warm side of the various big cheeses in your life, you’re wanting to be the good guy who everybody loves, not the jerk with the big mouth. But when you hit 50, you’re entering a new passage of life in which you can say what you really think.”
The Speed of Time
We all look forward to events on the horizons of our lives. For a guy like me that just turned 50, it’s retirement sometime in the not so distant future and a day when I won’t be father to a 12 year old daughter, but to a twenty-something woman walking down the aisle with her sixty-something dad.
As you head into the fifty-something territory, others of the same age spontaneously lament and wax that time is moving more quickly the older you get. This conversation can take place with perfect strangers at Starbucks. I sense that it might be okay to have this middle-aged banter with someone because I can usually tell their approximate age by looking at them: thinning hair, a slightly craggy face and the look in their eyes that they’ve known just how tough life can be.
There is a recognition of our finitude, that time is precious, that we don’t have forever to take running leaps towards our dreams.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, spoke to a Stanford graduating class as their commencement speaker in 2005.
Shortly before then, he has been diagnosed, treated and recovered from pancreatic cancer, a cancer that would take his life some six years later. Not mincing words, he told the class that we will all die. This wasn’t meant to be morbid, he told them. But a recognition that time is precious and not to be squandered. Our mortality gives us the motivation to find out what we love to do and do it.
Americans often associate this with finding a job they love. No doubt a noble endeavor. Yet most people do not find a job they love and often toil at average paying jobs that bring only a modicum of happiness, if any at all. But they labor on supporting themselves and their families seeking refuge in the solace of forests, a great book, a ball game and in making their spouse and children happy.
Much wisdom can be culled from our years of living to 50. We learn to see what’s really important and what is, by comparison, trivial at best. More than anything, I know this much is true: the decency and dignity with which we carry ourselves everyday trumps everything else that happens to us.
We All Have Choices
We all have choices and we need to be reminded of this over and over. Life will spare no one suffering. Some of us by mid-life will have suffered grievously: the loss of a spouse or loved one to cancer, the undeserved loss of a job and means to support oneself or, as I’ve written at some length before, episodes of depression.
But in my life time, I’ve learned that suffering does not have the final say. That we do have a large say about what suffering means to us and our relationship to it.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, writes in his book, Deeper than Words:
“Our human dignity hinges on the right use of freedom. The converse is the abuse of freedom. Fearing that, should we then want freedom to be eliminated so as to get rid of suffering? No freedom, no love; no love, no meaning; the worst possible suffering: meaningless. The only way off this dead-end road lies in the opposite direction love can give meaning even to suffering – and so overcome it.”
Yes, our life, if it is to have true meaning, is finally to be used to love and serve others. For when we pass, we will not be remembered in others’ hearts so much for our accomplishments, but for the love we have given and shared with others. You can bet on that.