thoughts on thoughts on turning 40

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. – Dante, Inferno (Ciardi, trans.)

Ten years ago I wrote an essay called Thoughts on Turning 30. It was a very personal essay, for me. One of the big reasons I wrote it was because I don’t keep a journal (kind of unusual, for a writer). I had talked in that essay about how I had spent time at every significant birthday up to that point moping about my life and about what I had learned. But I had never written any of it down. Part of my intent in that essay was to capture a moment in time, to explain how I was feeling at that moment so that Future Me would know.

I am Future Me now. Today is my 40th birthday. I joked in that essay that Future Me would look back on 30 me and laugh about how naive I was. I read that essay now and I don’t think that I was all that naive. I’m not laughing. I am, however, struck at how self-confident 30 me was. Self-confident, and optimistic. I was a bright young woman with a big attitude, at the top of my game, with big ideas and a whole lot of years to accomplish them stretching ahead of me. 30 me had so much to look forward to. 30 me was, frankly, really cool.

30 me, unfortunately, didn’t know how quickly things could unravel, didn’t know how dark the next ten years would actually be. How easily things could change with a few health problems and a lot of worry. Life sometimes jumps up and stands in the way of one’s big fabulous plans.

I’m not here to write thoughts on turning 40 and moan about how terrible things have turned out for me. They’re not terrible. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, I have a good career, a terrific marriage, and a very comfortable life. But things are much different now than they were for 30 me — quieter, more settled, more introspective, more routine, more boring. Which would be fine, if I was happy. But there’s a lingering, nagging doubt in the back of my mind, and sometimes the front, that I could be, should be, more than I am. There’s a doubt that is only underlined when I read 30 me excitedly talking about what she has learned and how much more she’s looking forward to. I find myself at 40 envying the overwhelming energy of 30 me, and wondering when it was I lost the drive to change the world. Is this just what happens when you get older, or did I make a wrong turn somewhere? Am I, like Dante, lost in the dark wood? And if I am, what I do I need to do to get out again?

10 thoughts on “thoughts on thoughts on turning 40

  1. I think that this is at least partly something that everyone goes through. No matter how much you accomplish, you’ll always regret the one thing you didn’t do. And it doesn’t really matter how much or how little you’ve done.

    And the ‘quieter’ thing is just a normal part of aging. Different things are important in your 40s than in earlier times.

  2. I think the introspection goes with the territory. At some point we all sift through the detritus of our so-far lives and look at who we *really* want to be. You’re eventually left standing with the shining inner core that emerges, but the sloughing-off part can be scary. We feel like we might be leaving something important behind, something undone, and suddenly the remaining years loom large with the thought, “But I never had time to do anything really BIG!” What you don’t realize while still in this process is that nothing, no thought, no action, is ever wasted. It all matters.

    Happy birthday!

  3. To some extent I think it’s also a reflection of the times — especially for those associated with technology in some way. 10 years ago all ideas were great and it seemed like almost everything we did was successful and there were no limits. Now, the industry as a whole seems somewhat more cautious and risk-adverse and perhaps even a bit more rational about things. So perhaps that rubs off a bit in our personal lives as well, making us all somewhat more introspective and thoughtful and generally comfortable with the status quo, regardless of whether we’re 30 or 40 or even 50.

  4. Happy birthday. As usual, I forgot. Sorry.

    I know about feeling like you’ve not quite made it. For various reasons, I don’t think I’ve made it, either.

    I think everyone feels that way. It’s part of the idealism of youth that fades away to the practicality of adulthood. Dark practicality, sometimes. Everything seemed so bright and happy back then. Now, it just doesn’t.

  5. Oh, happy birthday! I had forgotten that you’re three days older than I am.

    I don’t seem to know how to respond to your concerns that you should be more than you are. (i.e. I’ve been writing this post for an hour, and I’m only three sentences into it.) It seems to me that you have the same talent and spark that you did when you were 21 or 30, and maybe you’re just waiting for the next time that the world needs you to change it without ripping your life up at the same time. I hope that you find answers that give you pleasure and peace and help you to appreciate your value to the world.

  6. The poor long for riches
    The rich long for heaven
    But the wise desire tranquility.

    And btw, thanks for those books – a verse nicely added to civilization.

  7. the “lingering, nagging doubt” will probably grow and fester unless you figure out what exactly it is. when we leave a problem unnamed and undefined we give it power; when we name and characterize it, finally, we delimit it and it often (though not always) turns out to be surprisingly easily solved. my suggestion, therefore, is that you journal around the problem (i know you don’t like to journal but it’s the best technique) – start to explore your thoughts and feelings in as much depth as you can. try to pin down exactly what is missing and what solutions would help.

    remember that, as we age, the losses are often much more obvious and tangible than the gains…but the gains (like wisdom) are there and they are wonderful. i would work to reconnect myself with those gains. (More journaling?) I myself have many more options now then I did when I was 30 (I’m 49 now) because I have fewer fears, more courage and better judgment. Back then, I also wasted a lot of energy on the wrong projects, wrong men, and general confusion – now, even though my life is superficially calmer, there’s really a lot more meaningful stuff going on. Maybe it’s the same for you.

    This points to another solution, when you’re ready: mentor a young person. It will make you feel good and help you reconnect with your strengths – especially those that have come to you through age and experience.

    Oh, and finally, find some role models for graceful, active aging. That will make all the difference.

    Hope this helps!

  8. You’re unhappy and the reason for that is obvious … you’re getting old and you can’t make make sense of life.

    I am afraid there are no college courses available to help you solve this problem. However I can tell you this much; it has taken you forty years to get yourself into the state you’re in now, it will take you about ten years of hard work before you begin to make sense of your life. The hard work will consist of doing as you’re told … and what is the chance of someone like you doing as they ‘re told.? … 🙂

  9. Ah, ll12, I had forgotten that you are 1 year and 19 days ahead of me and, whether because of that or just coincidentally, have long been a hero and mentor of mine. I, too, became introspective over the past few months heading toward my 39th b-day. I figure I’ll be a total basket case by next year. Write me directly, please, fill me in on some of the details that you allude to above. I’ll share my latest news, which should comparatively cheer you up or at least amuse you to some degree. And, much belated, H A P P Y B I R T H D A Y !

  10. Don’t worry much for your health in getting old. Concentrate on some internal Chinese martial arts. Go here for now (there is no products selling, its a non-profitable portal).
    You can protect even your skin from wrinkling, and internal organs too. See we waste our life for earning money. We here in our land, young people spends most time for getting more earnings, and later spends all these money in hospital to cure the illness caused by heavy over work. So please invest some time and effort on building the health, character and some spiritual wellbeing. You will surely get rewarded for at least the last.

    (%) Peace …

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