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Forty-Three (and Change)

Black and white photo of the author at forth-three years old
The author on the forty-third anniversary of his birth.

You’re only as old as you feel.

I used to say “I didn’t feel old until I had children”. That’s because until I was a father, I never really felt the burden of adulthood or responsibility in quite the same way as being wholly responsible (in partnership with my wife) for the education, health, and spritual growth of freshly-minted human beings. So, in a sense, I’ve “felt old” for nearly fourteen years. The forty-third year of my life, however, has been—from my perspective—especially challenging.

“How was it challenging,” you may ask. “Did you lose your job?” No. “Did one of your children fall seriously ill?” No (thank you, God). “Has your marriage fallen apart?” No. Stop. Everything is fine. The worst case scenarios that one might conjure up to make my life seem challenging are all still fears and possibilities, not realities. In the words of one of my favorite authors, I’m still living my life on the lowest difficulty setting1. To be absolutely clear, I am thankful and happy with my life.

But…I still feel old. And I feel like life has been more difficult. When I stop to examine why, I come back to the realization that my brain lies to me. It tries to push responsibility and causality for undesired outcomes in my life to outside sources. When I really force myself to look at the reality of my life, I know that it’s nothing but me. My own dumb self imposing limits and making excuses. I give in to my fears. It’s so easy to be lazy. And I like easy.

“Tell me I have led a good life.”

Easy, though… Easy doesn’t get you as far as you might think. And while I have been living my life, have I truly lived? It’s a cliché, but I suppose this is what a mid-life crisis is about. You look back on what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done with what you’ve been given, and assess how you measure up to whatever scale has meaning to you. For some it’s money, cars, or real estate. For others, fame. For me? I can’t help but think of old man Private Ryan when he looks at that gravestone and says “Tell me I have led a good life.…Tell me I’m a good man.”

Have I led a good life? I like to think so. And hopefully it’s far from over and I’ll have plenty of time to live it better.2 The general wisdom in our culture, though, is that when you hit your forties and fifties, you’ve probably already hit your peak and your “best” years are behind you. Your timeline for living a good life is much shorter. It’s also a complicated question to answer because as a Christian I believe my entire existence is sort of working ever closer to achieving unattainable standards, and that’s OK. Always learn, always improve. Always know that Jesus loves me no matter how many times I fail and start again. Ultimately it’s not up to me to decide how good a life I’ve lived. The important part is that I try, that I make the sincere effort to be the very best version of me.

Do more. Do better.

Why push yourself, why try and do better, when just coasting along doing what you’ve always done seems to work just fine? Whether it’s something that is inherent in our physical wiring or implanted by divine providence in our ephemeral, eternal soul, I think the answer is dissatisfaction. Beyond the basic instinct to keep ourselves fed and sheltered, I think humans have an intrinsic dissatisfaction with whatever their current circumstances may be. Laziness can and often does override this feeling, but I don’t know if it ever goes away. It gets squashed and festers, maybe becoming resentment and shame at not doing more with the gifts we’re given.

So how do I shake off these feelings of oldness and dissatisfaction, and get back on the path of becoming the best version of myself? That’s the very nature of this mid-life crisis-ish mood I find myself in, these several days after turning forty-three. I’ve been rolling it around in my head for awhile, and the best answer I’ve come up with is to do more and to do better. Do more new things, and when I do the things I’m already doing, do them better. Rather than dwelling on the idea that my life may already be half over, with the “best” already behind me, I’m going to focus on what I can do right now, from this moment forward.

  1. He follows it up with more thoughts here and here 

  2. Or live it worse! Choice is wonderful and frightening.