I’m 40 years old, and in less than a month my 40th year will be in the rear view mirror. I remember one day, when I was 25, when I had the realization that forty was only fifteen years away. I remember exactly where I was too. I remember cringing a little because being ten years old still felt recent and forty felt impossibly old. In an instant I realized that youth had a shelf life, and that sooner than I would like it would expire.
Thirty was a great year. My twenties were full of Sehnsucht, a portmanteau of undefined longing and lingering illness that only the mind of a German could condense into a single, two syllable word. I was relieved, despite the negative buzz about flipping that significant digit, to ditch the twentysomething angst for the decade of hustle that any responsible thirtysomething must endure. In my thirties my career finally hit its stride. I spent the decade in a more or less stable relationship. I learned to drink wine and spent romantic weekends in Mendocino, getting massages and sampling artisanal whatnots. I worked hard and took up running. I skipped some of the responsibilities that my peers took on; kids, mortgage. But I played harder than I did in my twenties. I had fun. And then life happened.
Forty is a canonical number. When Noah took his cruise, it rained for forty days and forty nights. Moses roamed the desert with his people for forty years. Jesus fasted in the desert and was tempted by Satan for forty days. Forty is big. It is more than the literal bundling of forty individual things. It’s something that’s not exactly quantifiable. How big was that thing? I don’t know, like forty.
Forty was a transformative year for me. The relationship that had been the bedrock of my life eroded from the Heraclitian constant – change, and I found myself thrust into the dating world as a forty year old man; the optics of which are not good. There are 38 year old women who will not date a forty year old man. I am too old and settling for me means admitting that one has past one’s “best by date” on the early side. I would write this off as a purely psychological phenomena, but for the fact that I am not 39. I am forty.
I drink less now. Bars are noisy and crowded, and I am happier when I go several weeks without so much as a beer. My bottles of scotch and tequila sit on the shelf gathering dust. They are nice to look at. I like their aesthetics, but they make me happier as art objects than having their contents poured into shot glasses. I don’t work a program. I didn’t make some great effort to stop drinking. One day I just lost interest. Most of the time a good night’s rest is more appealing than a cocktail.
Work is interesting. My professional life has become less of a mystery. I understand everyone’s role better; their concerns, why they show up in the morning, and where they are headed at the end of the day. There aren’t as many puzzles to be solved. I watch the more junior people make the same mistakes I made and hack the same lessons that I hacked. Sometimes I have to watch them and let them do their thing. I try and give them encouragement, but some things are just best learned through experience. It’s a weird feeling observing their struggles, one that I might have felt earlier had I not opted out of parenthood.
I feel more too. In my thirties everything had to be rational. It had to fit in place. It had to be just so. Now I look at my thoughts and have a much better sense of what is a reality-based idea backed by logic and what is a feeling. I have stopped calling my feelings “wrong ideas” and tossing them in the bad pile. Now I divide them between rational and irrational, and try to keep them sorted that way. I choose my words more carefully too. I don’t just “think” everything anymore. I think rational things, I feel non-rational things. I try and modulate my decisions accordingly. I try and bring more mindfulness to how my decisions make me feel. I don’t always get it right but sometimes I do. And sometimes the result is boring. I may be happier, but happy and well balanced feels tedious a lot of the time.
I don’t want forty. I want to kick it down the street a few decades. I like the hustle. I want to make big deals, found a successful company, and swim in an Olympic sized swimming pool of my own money. And I miss that undefined longing that felt like a low grade infection. I don’t want to give up on the idea that there is something bigger and better out there for me than I can possibly imagine. But I’m forty. Forty is big. Forty is heavy. It is a wall; a boulder so big that Moses or Jesus or the Big Sky Man Himself can’t move it. Forty is the reality that I am just another human being passing through this insignificant speck in a vast but impermanent universe on my way, soon, to shuffle off this mortal coil.