Last month I turned 50. Fifty! A big number. Half a century. Centuries certainly carry some weight in the things to celebrate department. Just ask Steve Smith or anyone who got a letter from the Queen on their 100th birthday. We think of centuries as significant – as if standing the test of time. Maybe that’s why 50 feels like such a milestone. A sort of half-way mark to longevity.
I’ve been feeling old ever since I turned about 46 and went back to university. Nothing like hanging out in the same space as the bright young neuroscientists of tomorrow to make you self-conscious of your age. Not that they aren’t friendly and lovely people – an indication that if we can wrestle control out of the gnarled hands of conservative fundamentalists and hand it on to the sharp minds of today we might be in with a chance to keep progress on the right track. But they definitely look at me as old. And I am, comparatively. The negative slant on that reality is cast by the shadow of my own insecurities though, not theirs.
It’s easy to cast my mind back decades and recall my younger self in their shoes. The beginning of the path to adulthood, the future unknown, but stretching forward, scary but exciting. I see myself in them and wonder what the hell I’ve done in the intervening years.When you are in the habit of comparing yourself to famous people you’re liable to end up asking what have I actually done with my life?
Comparisons. One of the many ridiculous ways we knit knots into our minds.
But something seems to have settled recently. Maybe it’s because I decided that getting older is definitely better than being dead, which are the only two options available to us. The latter arriving unannounced whether we like it or not. In the meantime, I realise, spending time bemoaning each new ache and pain, or wishing you might have been braver or smarter or less caught up in feeling not quite good enough in your own skin is time wasted. Unskilled thinking Joseph Goldstein might say, channelling the Buddha.
To date I’ve had 50 years on this planet to do stuff. To walk through the crisp awakening of dawn to the sound of bird song while the edges of the world turn purple. To stare into the star-filled inky night from a boat in a lake, surrounded by hippos. I’ve visited ancient cities and felt the pulse of the past brush against my fingers, and I’ve experienced the pain and breathless wonder of birthing another human being, and watched them grow into themselves. I’ve taken up cycling and running and swimming, much to my mother’s surprise. This is the privilege of ageing. To know what it is to love and be loved. To understand the value of laughter, and with it the gift of compassion. To rejoice not in winning, but in trying one’s hand at all manner of things.
Something about this particular milestone seems to have helped me feel more confident in myself. Happy with who I am. I’ve always struggled with feelings of self-worth. But suddenly I feel that I like myself. I like who I am and how I do life. It’s a new feeling – this letting go of judgement. A feeling of space and peace. In letting go of my inner critic, I find I’m more accepting of the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of others too. In letting go of a need for external validation, I find the peace in love without attachment. Perhaps it’s the mindfulness courses I’m doing. Or the years of hard work I’ve put in to untangling myself. Or the surprise fly-in to Sydney of my siblings, from the four corners of the earth, just to come and see me for my birthday.
Or maybe wisdom just requires experience. And experience requires time.
I’m pretty sure this is a path that goes up and down. Dark forests of self-doubt may well still lie in wait down the road. But that knowledge in itself, the ability to understand the nature of one’s own mind, that’s progress. That’s the torch which you get with time spent well. The light to navigate your way out of the forest.
So happy birthday to me. And may I, and all of us, treat each day as the special gift of life it is. Fifty might seem like a long time when you start adding up all the things you’ve done, but it’s as quick as a blink if you don’t pay attention.
Carpe Diem, for real.