Nearing Fifty

I guess it must be the approaching milestone of turning fifty, but I am in a meditative mood these days about life.

Well, the truth is, I think I have always been a meditative type. I used to write bad poems when I was a teenager that were ridiculous attempts at philosophizing about life (no, I won’t share them) and later in my twenties and my thirties I dabbled in journal writing but it was usually the kind of stuff that now provides almost no window at all into my life. They are really only portraits of how I thought rather than narratives of what I experienced. Lately in my journal, all I want to write is a dry account of what is actually happening because I feel so inattentive to experience.

It’s a cliché, but I am much more conscious of my mortality than I ever used to be. It’s not a morbid thing, but one starts to imagine life beyond this life, to inhabit a way of imagining the totality of my experiences from a perspective where it all might seem so far away and so very, very temporary. And that makes you feel more anxious not to miss the show. I feel myself less likely to feel hot-blooded about issues that used to rile me, but I notice that this isn’t so much because I am necessarily less convinced that I am right about some things (indeed, in many cases, I am more and more certain of where truth lies), but because I can see what an utter waste of energy it is to blow smoke, to overheat, and to have lived my life only surrounded by the like-minded. Even when I read or hear like-minded friends expressing exasperation I might share on an issue, I feel ashamed of the rawness of the emotion. Like a good meal, emotions need time to be properly cooked and stewed and alchemized so that they achieve their proper savor. Just spewing them out, as they come, seems like forcing people to eat raw garlic when you could have offered them a dazzling pesto dish instead. I am no saint. I spew raw emotions. But I hurt myself and others when I do, and I always regret it, and as I age, I find myself aiming for something very different than what I once thought my life was about. I am no longer interested in knowing who I am and what my convictions are. To quote the great Unamuno, “the end of life is to live not to understand.”

If I could go back to my younger self, I would have a few things to say about what it means to live. I would tell myself, for example, that I should hitch myself to experience with gusto and worry less about whether or not I had identified the right path, the right spouse, the right career, the right place to be. I wasted too much anxiety double or triple checking my circumstances, taking my emotional temperature every day to see if life felt like it “fit,” if it was truly mine. And meanwhile it was happening, it was moving forward and changing, perhaps forever. So I would tell myself to let experience come to me in more fullness, not to fight it so much or wish to make it other than it is.

I would tell myself to start taking better care of myself physically much, much earlier and I would tell myself it is never too late to reverse a physical setback. I never understood that exercise was its only pleasure. I always thought that athletics was for the, well, athletic, and as I compared myself to those who were more skilled than I, I always came up wanting. I thought the purpose of physical activity was some kind of achievement, that it was a process by which you gradually demonstrated your innate excellence. And since I was never as good as I wanted to be at many competitive sports, I quit and I lost years. Physical recreation is a way of discovering the pleasure and miracle of having a body and learning to develop in it. It is a way of expressing your own desire to interact with your body and with the world, and it has given me access to beauty, to wonder, and to some of the deepest pleasures I have ever experienced. Now most of the “sports” I enjoy—running, biking, hiking, lifting—have little or no competitive quality to them at all, except as a way of motivating myself to see what I can do. And while I certainly am more and more aware of the limits of age, I am often surprised at how much fun it is to just feel active, and how routine runs or rides over the same terrain not only never bore me but they instill in me a love for my life, for my place, for my friends and family, and for the temporary privilege of good health.

For that matter, I would tell myself not to measure my worth according to the many superficial ways I felt tempted by when I was younger. I am referring to the hunger we let ourselves feel for the flattery and admiration of others for appearing attractive, intelligent, successful, or for having any other external measure of worth. I would tell myself to start earlier and more often to feel the self-affirmation of God’s unconditional love for me, to understand that that love is deeply personal—for me uniquely— even if it is also universal and for everyone. The sooner I could move on to the work of accepting that love and sharing it, moving it forward to others, the better. The truth is, the idea of God’s universal love, of my own inherent worth, was often unacceptable to me because it didn’t feel like a prize I had won. If it was so universal, why should it also be special? If God is no respecter of persons, why should I care that He knows and loves me? I have written before of my admiration for Lowell Bennion, a man who embodied selfless service better than anyone else I have ever known and even he admitted once that he wanted to be admired for having written a great and complex work of scholarship more than he wanted to be admired for having lived a Christian life or written simple and good books about Christianity. But we do admire those who truly embody Christian living, maybe because in the end, it is pretty rare. I wish I had started earlier on the work it takes to overcome the self and to truly give oneself away.

It is a bit of a paradox to put it this way, but I would also tell myself that I need not worry about growing up and changing because I will always feel young. I am not so changed by time that I have lost a sense of where I started. I will always feel like the young yearning teenager I once was. I will always be capable of utter and joyous silliness. For that matter, I am sure that I knew things as a young man that were well beyond my years. I don’t imagine that I necessarily have more wisdom and understanding now. My position has shifted and I can see differently, but I also try to remind myself that I need the wisdom and perspective of the young. They feel like true friends to me. I just don’t see age much any more. What’s different perhaps is that when you are young, you look at older people and imagine them to be some totally different genus of being. They look old, they act old. That difference frightened me. I would have spent more time listening to old people, being curious about them. But when I see people now, everyone seems about the same age to me, older people just seem like young people trapped in an aging body. I can imagine them as teens or as college students really easily. The young are just adults in embryo and I can imagine where they will be in a few decades. I can see them working in a profession or raising a family, pretending to know what’s up.

Feeling perpetually young is a blessing but it also means wisdom is always provisional and temporarily conditioned by my present life’s circumstances. Which is maybe why I have lost a little fire. I am more clear about what I don’t know, more sure that I will see things differently tomorrow, and more accepting of truth’s manifold appearance in life. My spiritual bearings are as solid as they ever were, maybe more so because I am more profoundly content with what life has meant thus far, but I am also more comfortable with the fact that what I think I understand about God, about my mortality, and about the world is never going to reach the totality of what God can see. That used to cause me some anxiety or at least an intense desire to work for higher understanding so as to conquer the anxiety. Now it brings peace, the same peace I feel on the banks of a river or on a trail. All I really want to know is, what’s next?


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