Like all big milestones in life, my approaching fortieth birthday has really had me thinking and reflecting. Unlike the months leading up to my 30th birthday that were filled with dread, resistance and melancholy, I feel strangely at peace about turning 40 and even a sense of excited optimism…. mingled with a small but definite dose of denial.
I remember when my Dad turned 40 when I was a young girl and thinking wow, now my dad really is old. It was a scary thought that my dad was now considered to be ‘mid-life’, with everybody telling him “It’s all downhill from here, buddy”. And now seemingly out of nowhere it appears I’m about to turn 40. This one has definitely snuck up on me from behind.
It seems like only yesterday I was graduating from high school, feeling like the future was vast and limitless. We buried a time capsule on the school grounds in our final days that contained a letter to our future selves ten years down the track, saying what we hoped to do in the next ten years. Ten years seemed so long and far away back then. I had so many ideas about what I would be and have by then. And yet here I am all of a sudden, out of school for more than twenty years, wondering how it all went so fast. Sure, lots has happened in that time – I’ve lived in eight different countries, had lots of fun and adventures and weathered many turbulent storms – but still it’s hard to fathom that I’m now considered to be mid-life, relegated to the ranks of “old farts”, the ones who have to scroll down for ages to find their birth year.
Given how quickly the past twenty years have gone, and how suddenly my fortieth seems to have come around, there’s only one conclusion I can come to about all of this, and that is:
LIFE IS SHORT.
And it goes way too fast.
They’re standard old clichés, but it’s finally sunk in that they’re true.
Seeing this clearly has made me re-think how I want to live my next forty years, if I’m blessed to live that long or (hopefully) longer. Here are my suggestions for those of us entering the post-40 years.
1. Enjoy the journey, there is no destination
We will never ‘get there’, wherever ‘there’ is. When I was younger I thought I’d have my life all nicely wrapped up by the time I’d be forty – the perfect career, perfect family, perfect home, perfect lifestyle. I hadn’t realized how much I still had to learn about myself and about life, and that the only way I’d get to know all this would be through riding the beautiful yet sometimes ugly and brutal roller coaster of life. I didn’t know that despite which destination I had in mind, life had a mind all if its own. I had no idea I would spend the first 35 years of my life trying to live up to the expectations of others, deaf to the whispers of my own heart. I didn’t know it would take a crisis to wake me up to my authentic desires and to have the courage to follow them.
My point is, it doesn’t matter if we don’t get it ‘right’, whatever that is. There’s no one keeping score. The journey of life has an infinite number of paths it could follow, each one taking us through unknown terrain, but each one teaching us something about ourselves – what we value, what we love, what we want, what we don’t want. And I believe that’s the whole point, to get to know ourselves, to grow and develop, to appreciate every experience life has to offer, no matter how good or bad, messy or perfect, painful or joyful. As Aristotle said more than two thousand years ago: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”.
And rather than working hard and yearning to ‘get there’, if we can give up the chase and relax into life, being open to its ever-changing and unpredictable nature, we can be more at peace with allowing it to unfold in its own way. By having no attachment to how things should go, we suffer less when things don’t go how we want and are able to better appreciate whatever comes onto our path. I’ve come to believe that the only thing that matters is to be true to our own hearts and to be our genuine, authentic selves.
The optimism I feel about my forties comes from the freedom of deciding to live life on my terms, in alignment with my heart, and nothing less.
2. Do what you love and do it often
Life is short as we know. You only get one shot at it. So why waste time doing things you don’t enjoy? Why not find out what you love doing and do it often and if possible, all the time? We’ve all heard the saying “If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life”. That seems to me the ultimate joy, turning your passion and joy into your day job.
But it can also be just in the small things. Find out what makes your heart sing. Develop a relationship with your heart and hear what it’s trying to tell you. Maybe it wants to finally to go those dancing classes, or take walks on the beach at sunset, or move to the country. For me, a big one is travel and exploring the world. The more I can do of this, the happier my soul feels. Or maybe your heart wants to do something more bold – give up that job, move cities or start that business you’ve been dreaming of for years. Whatever it is, find your passion and make it come alive. My biggest fear is getting to 80 and wishing I’d done all those things I love while I still had the health and ability to do them. My favourite singer as a teenager, Anthony Kiedis, got it right when he said “It’s better to regret something you did, than something you didn’t do”.
But it takes a lot of courage to follow our hearts, to take that leap of faith out of our comfort zone and into the unknown. We shouldn’t expect the path of the heart to be easy; it will by necessity shake things up in life. Any big change requires a period of upheaval, and that scares us. As Gregg Lavoy says in his book Callings: “Generally, people won’t pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so, but it’s appalling how high a threshold people have for this quality of pain”. This was definitely true in my case. It took more than ten years of emptiness, heartache, chronic illness and finally two miscarriages for me to surrender to the callings of my heart that urged me to leave my old corporate career and pursue my love of working with others through the field of coaching. And while I’ve never felt better in my life since following my call, it still feels very uncomfortable at times as I try to find my way, my voice and my identity in a field that is all quite new to me – at times I feel super vulnerable and exposed. As Levoy says, “Saying yes to the call tends to place you on a path that half of yourself thinks doesn’t make a bit of sense, but the other half knows your life won’t make sense without”.
I know now from personal experience that when we’re aligned with our hearts, we experience the flow and joy of life. Even the difficult and challenging experiences make sense because it feels like they’re part of the growth and development we need to make our callings come true. The discomfort is somehow easier to handle when we know we’re finally on track, because we’re lit up and inspired with the excitement and optimism of finally being aligned in our body, mind and soul. As Howard Thurman says “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
3. Make more time for good friends and loved ones
Life is busy and before you know it, months can pass without spending much time with good friends and loved ones. We all need to spend more time with those special people who bring us alive, who make us laugh and who love us no matter what we say or do. There’s a saying “It’s not how we feel about the person that matters but rather how we feel about ourselves when we’re with them.” Some people just make us feel good about ourselves. They inspire us and support us to be a better person. I think it’s because they remind us of our true, beautiful essence. They mirror back all our good qualities through their unconditional love and space of non-judgement. And they’re just fun to be with. If you’re blessed to have at least a few of those people in your life, spend more time with them. Plan the next catch up and make it a regular thing. After all, the true beauty of life is not in anything we can do or achieve but in enjoying the connections we have with others.
4. Be present with your loved ones
Given the hectic nature of life, it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos, with our minds either on what needs to happen next or what happened in the past. It’s a challenge to be right there in the moment with our little ones, but in a way they’re a perfect example of showing us how to do it. I love the way my little boy can be totally engrossed in what he’s doing, so totally focused in the here and now. And I see how his eyes light up when I’m right there in the moment with him. He loves nothing more than for me to be fully there with him. He starts playing up when I’m busy doing other things, or have my eyes glued to my telephone, or I’m asking him to be quiet so I can listen to the news. When he starts playing up and acting out I can usually see how it’s linked to my lack of presence with him. Of course we can’t always be there fully with them all the time given the busy nature of life, but we owe it to them – and to ourselves – to be there fully as often as we can.
5. Feel genuine, heartfelt gratitude
One of our dear friends recently passed away very suddenly after running a half marathon. He was only 40 years old, very fit and very healthy. It was such a terrible and tragic shock for all of us, one that we’re still coming to terms with. He left behind his beautiful wife and two young daughters, who won’t have the joy of his presence as they grow older. This shock of losing someone dear to our hearts brought the finite nature of life even closer to home.
It’s a privilege to grow old, one not afforded to everybody. Next time you cringe at your wrinkles in the mirror, bless them instead, for at least they mean you’ve lived long enough to earn them. And wrinkles around your eyes are a sign of how much you’ve laughed. Don’t get me wrong, I still find it hard to accept the first signs of ageing in my body (was that really a grey hair? Are my hands really starting to look like my Granny’s? Is that really the start of a varicose vein on my leg?). But at the same time it means I’m still here and growing older. Which means I’m able to be with my family and watch my boys grow older, and that right there is a blessing to be grateful for every day.
6. Laugh, sing and dance more
Laughing is a tonic for the soul. There’s nothing as good as laughing so hard that your tummy or cheeks hurt right? Or singing your lungs out when that favourite old song comes on the radio and you can turn it up full bore, feeling all the emotion and joy the song brings as memories come flooding back. Or dancing freely and letting your hair down, feeling care-free and alive. These are all things I hope to do more of as I grow older, because I want to enjoy this wild and beautiful roller coaster ride as much as I can.
“Sing like no one’s listening
Love like you’ve never been hurt
Dance like nobody’s watching
And live like it’s heaven on earth.” – Mark Twain
Amen to that. Bring on the forties, let’s try to embrace this getting old business with open arms!