life lessons from a 40th birthday
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there. — Rumi
I could say that turning 40 felt like any other birthday, but that would be a lie. And it wasn’t just because my wondrous boyfriend organized a surprise birthday celebration (plotting alongside my best friend, who hosted the dinner at the Sunset Marquis).
As I contemplated what to wear, I found myself thinking: Is that age appropriate?
And then I thought, Fuck it, and put on the minidress.
One of the strange things about getting older – you’ll hear people of all ages say this – is that you keep waking up the same person. It’s not like the Maturation Fairy visits you in the night and touches you with her wand and says, Presto! You’re a grown-up!
When you imagine yourself being older – if you allow yourself to imagine it at all – it’s with the sense that Future You is not really you, with your wants and needs and habits, but perhaps a different person entirely.
In her book THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT, Kelly McGonigal puts it like this:
“Brain-imaging studies show that we…use different regions of the brain to think about our present selves and our future selves. When people imagine enjoying a future experience, the brain areas associated with thinking about oneself are surprisingly unengaged….It’s as if we are observing a person from the outside to decide what is true about them, rather than looking within to decide what is true of ourselves.”
She also adds:
“Studies show that the less active your brain’s self-reflection system is when you contemplate your future self, the more likely you are to say “screw you” to future you, and “yes” to immediate gratification.”
It’s human nature to care more about our own well-being than a stranger’s. So it’s easy to put the wants of our present self ahead of the needs of our future self. The stranger-self.
But time has a way of passing – shocking, I know – and suddenly we become that future self. Did that earlier, more immature self screw us over, or not? Did she care for our health, relationships, work, finances? The self is like a car that the younger version gets to drive around first. What kind of shape is it in when she finally hands it over?
There’s an epithet that appears on many old gravestones:
As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so one day you must be.
But who really, truly believes that?
The toughest part of my life was the death of my baby son and what followed. Now that I’m through the other side, it’s all sacred to me. It’s part of who I am. It’s in my blood and bones, my eyes, my worldview.
It transformed me.
And I’m a novelist, so I know: the meaning of the story lies in the transformation of the character. I can lovingly carry my son’s death inside me because of the meaning I fought to make of it, how I chose to weave it though the narrative of my life.
(Trauma is what you leave outside that narrative, until it grows a dark narrative of its own.)
I don’t think human beings are wired for happiness so much as challenge and meaning. (If we’re lucky, happiness arrives as an indirect benefit of the pursuit of other things, including health, accomplishment, service and love).
Meaning so often comes from the tough stuff, the dark nights of the soul, the raw and difficult material from which we must fashion some altered version of ourselves: wounded, yes, but stronger for the broken places.
I’m grateful for my kids, my family.
I’m grateful for my man.
I’m grateful for my friends.
Here’s the thing about friends: at one time or another, in one way or another, they save your goddamn life.
(Thank you for saving me.)
I’m grateful for my vigilant use of sunscreen and the fact that I spent a lot of time indoors. I’m grateful that I quit smoking. I’m grateful that I saw an Oprah Winfrey episode in my mid-twenties about the benefits of weight-training. I’m grateful for the exercise regimen that saw me through three pregnancies, fifteen years, I’m the same weight now I was in high school. I’m grateful that I never abandoned my writing, even if I misplaced it at times. I’m grateful that I stayed in touch, however shifting, with the life goals I listed as a teenager: Raise kids. Write books. Travel world.
I’m grateful for the events that got me into therapy so I could address my freaking issues (ongoing, of course, but going well. Knock wood).
There were some wild years, and no matter how ill-advised some of those nights may have been, I’m grateful for them (because they were awesome). I’m also grateful I got through them unscathed.
I have some stretch marks and battle scars and I’m grateful for those. Fall down seven times, get up eight. I’m grateful for that eighth time, that next day, that new chance. Not everybody gets one. They don’t last forever.
I’m grateful for what’s behind me, and for what lies ahead.
There is a point to this. Because what I want to say is:
‘Everything’ has a way of breaking down into small things: small tasks, small choices. Small things have a way of adding up, and when we come into our future self, we come into a reckoning.
If we chose the cake or the apple, the walk or the television rerun, to pick up or put down the cigarette. If we shopped more than we earned. If we showed up in our relationships or neglected them for the more immediate thrill of whatever. If we showed up for anything at all. If we fought – fought hard – to build momentum. If we succumbed to the bullshit or figured out how, in our own way, to stand up to it. If we had the courage to admit our mistakes and tear down what we needed to tear down, in order to build something new, whole and right. If we chose the right person to be with. If we chose the right people to be around, to influence our views and habits.
If we chose to add value to others – and ourselves – or to subtract.
McGonigal refers to something called “future-self continuity”.
It is “the degree to which you see your future self as essentially the same person as your current self.”
If you think of your present self and your future self as two individual circles, do those circles overlap, or not? The more close and connected you feel to your future self – the more the circles overlap – the higher your sense of “future-self continuity” – the better off you’ll be.
You will make choices with your future self in mind. You build, brick by brick and day by day, a better future for that self to enjoy. McGonigal writes:
“High future-self continuity seems to propel people to be the best version of themselves now.”
Which probably explains why self-help literature and success gurus place such emphasis on developing a vision for your life, on figuring out what you want, on clarity, clarity, clarity. Imagining the future kicks the brain in gear so that it pays more attention to the actions you take now. The more concrete and vivid the future feels, the more your brain pulls that future to you by making the necessary choices now.
It’s as if the decisions you make today are messages sent to your future self. When you’re on the receiving end of those messages — as you one day must be -– will you regret them, or not?
Barbara Sher writes about how, at 40, a woman’s life starts to belong to herself.
The first 20 years of adulthood are busy with nature’s dictates, wrestling with them or responding to them: finding a mate, building the nest, having the kids, raising the kids. Not always in that order.
You spend your twenties figuring out who you are; you spend your thirties putting together the pieces of your life; you juggle like mad.
In your 40s, a lot of those decisions fall behind you. Certain tasks are complete or far enough along to release you to other things. The parts of your life grow together. And as you come to a richer understanding of the life that you have, you can reach – in ever more powerful ways – for the life you still want.
Linda Austin points out that
“Studies have shown that careers that begin at a later age can have the same trajectory of excellence as those started in young adulthood – the peak of achievement is just reached later in life.”
Men, she adds, tend not to sustain the same level of productivity as in their earlier years. They start to decline in mid-life – when many women are “freed enough from family responsibilities” to put the pedal to the metal and really get going in their careers.
“The challenge is for women at this stage not to have already typecast themselves as second-tier achievers, nor to become discouraged or feel left behind. The challenge is to re-find the excitement of achievement they experienced in young adulthood.
Given the reality of most women’s lives, if women are to succeed fully we must extend our expectation of the age when that achievement will occur and actively nurture the development of our intellect to allow that to happen.”
As George Eliot once said: It’s never too late to be what you might have been.
When you live in a culture as youth-oriented as ours, you tend to think that life ends at 30 – and then at 40 – and you can’t imagine yourself past that edge, or what could lie beyond. There’s a certain self-importance to youth; no matter how crappy your life is, you tend to be smug about being young, and feel sorry for people who aren’t.
But what I’m reveling in right now, what I’m holding close to my heart, is a sense of time. Whatever time I have left, I still have it, and — dammit — I will make the most of it.
My gift to my future self is a life of no regrets.
(Mistakes, of course — they can be very interesting — but no regrets.)
And somewhere in the distance – hopefully in the far, far, far-off distance, the light-years away kind of distance – my future self stands on a balcony looking out at the view, hair twisted in a chignon and a gin-and-tonic in one hand as I celebrate my latest book, or my newest grandchild, or an awesome yoga session or an old friendship or a new friendship or the richness of my current marriage or the adventure of life as a single woman or the start of an exciting project or something.
What you hunt for, you find, and so there will always be something to celebrate.
That is my promise to my future self.
She’s looking at me now, she’s tossing a scarf across her shoulder, she’s speaking down through a corridor of time: You go, woman. Flaunt it. Enjoy it. Give ‘em hell.