On turning 40
Coming to peace with a heavy birthday
A New Year offers a blank page, but sometimes also a specific upcoming date, and in my case 2022 means turning 40. Firstly, I should say that I very much object to this; however, and despite repeated enquiries, I simply don’t know who to speak or submit a complaint to in order to get the event deferred. Meaning that barring unexpected tragedy, I will be turning 40 in September of this year.
For several years now this birthday seemed like a gun held to my head. I have been discussing it with people, reading books and columns about midlife and comparing myself to similarly-aged contemporaries – old Millenials - of which Janan Ganesh’s column was an elegant recent example. Indeed, there appears to be a whole subgenre of article in which female writers mark this anniversary by saying that finally, even amidst all the responsibilities of childcare and their growingly imperfect bodies, they finally feel right inside. Much as I’m happy for anyone to be happy, this doesn’t really chime with my situation as a balding and childless artist manqué, and the overall feeling I’ve maintained even after concerted attempts to mitigate the milestone is that in nine months I’m facing public execution.
This is, of course, histrionic. I’m only about halfway through the average lifespan of a British male, just under the median age, and I’m healthy and disciplined enough to at least work the odds of developing serious disease in my favour. Plus medicine will certainly continue to advance, which will hopefully make my later years more productive and even more numerous, and certainly likely to be easier than in many more disadvantaged parts of the world. Nonetheless, something has changed within me of late, and I think the crucial aspect of it is my relation to time. When you are a child, 80 years seems an unfathomably long time, but from where I am now, 40 years in, it’s just ‘same again’, and then you’re there. Even if we admit that childhood feels infinite, and count our real lives as starting from the moment when most of us leave home in our late teens - well, 40 years is only twice that.
And of course, the fear bundled in along with this is that you’ve already done the good bit. In physical terms this is certainly the case. Over the last years I have made a huge effort to get into good physical shape, and I still feel terrible. Oh, I don’t mean terrible terrible – I mean that, after two half-marathons and many shorter races, I continue to feel creakier, older and generally worse than I did as an untrained 20 year old. I dread to think how I would be feeling if I wasn’t so fit. There’s simply no way the years to come won’t present further physical decline, and as someone who has always been acutely sensitive to even the slightest change in their body, that’s an unnerving prospect. Of course, I can try and alter my mental attitude to these anxieties – I am currently taking a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to that end – but the main consolation of my youth to setbacks, the vigour and freshness of my body, is increasingly scarce. Being in my body now is more like driving a just slightly bashed-up car which still goes well enough, but requires a little more maintenance in order to do so.
Many things about life have grown a little harder. My parents are getting frail; a few friends have died; my career, never great, has stagnated. And the absence of as much time ahead – or certainly the fear that the productive years remaining are fewer – adds a pressure and stress to everything I simply hadn’t felt before. This is why youth is so desirable as a state; it feels like there is time to waste. Youth is the part of our lives when we can follow the side quest, get pleasantly lost, and return to the main narrative in good time. I am nostalgic for the Berlin of my youth, seeing friends, going out drinking – and recovering very quickly! – and the casual sociability of youthful lives. Now, even before the pandemic many of my friends had moved into the world of responsible child-rearing, and even those who hadn’t I saw less frequently, though always gladly. Gone for good though is ‘just hanging-out’, those loose hours of talk, spontaneity and shared experience; much as I’d like to have them back, there might be something somewhat undignified about a 40-year old man organizing a sleepover. Anyway, sleepovers were there at least in part to teach me social lessons and behaviours I have already learnt.
In the natural order of things, I myself should be having kids now but my personal confusion and disappointment have left me more resistant to give the ‘gift of life’ to somebody else. I feel reluctant to bring anybody else into all this. This is why it is better to have kids when young; by the time you come to early middle age, you’re more aware of exactly what it means to give someone a life, with all its minor triumphs and endless complications. Much easier to pitch the joy of life to someone when you yourself are still relatively innocent of the whole project. Very different to preside over a new someone just as you’re realizing how brief the time we get at our peak is.
I always find it strange when I hear someone being said to have died at ‘only 60’. You mean, I think, they outlived Shakespeare? And the fact is 40 years is a life; a short life, yes, but in human terms, enough to qualify. Even my friends who didn’t make 40 had lives; as Death wonderfully puts it in The Sandman’s ‘Brief Lives’ section, speaking to a man who has died after somehow surviving 15,000 years: ‘You got a lifetime. Same as what anybody gets. No more. No less.’ The truth is that, outside the world of fantasy graphic novels, none of us live very long. Sometimes at nights a real existential anxiety rises up within me; I have always feared death awfully, and there’s no way to spin 40 as anything other than a further step towards the end of the line. And these fears don’t have the charm of a bit of casual youthful morbidity, strung across your neck like a chic designer scarf – this is full on existential terror.
Most of the time, though, I’m fine. Indeed at other moments I feel calmer than ever before, pleased at the things that have brought me to where I sit, in a small good flat with my lovely spouse. I often feel, weirdly enough, as if my life has only just begun, and that everything until now was a ‘long preamble to the tale’. I still think more about the future than the past. And I know what I want.
What I want is life to surprise me, in a good way. (Contracting dengue fever at my local supermarket would be a surprise, but not in a good way). I want to meet new people, go to new places and learn new skills. I want a new job, and to have a bigger audience for my work. Perhaps later on, as our kids grow and our second careers blossom, some of my generation’s sociability will return.
What I want, above all, is to feel again some of the enthusiasm I did setting out in life – even though, I suspect, if I met that person who did, they would seem callow and naïve compared to the man I have become. Certainly, I want my 40s to my best decade yet. I am not optimistic that these things will come to pass. But I am still here, which is certainly an outstanding boost to their chances.