When does middle age begin?
Some believe it’s 40, others 50. Friends of mine, especially those in their mid 40s, like to delude themselves that they aren’t quite there. They enjoy reminding me that since I’ve past the big “five-o,” there is no debating that I’ve reached middle age.
But let’s be honest, what we are really talking about here is at what age we are officially “old.”
In truth, middle age began for me long before I was 50. It happened when my oldest child went to college. That moment made me feel a hell of a lot older than any birthday.
Middle age may not be tied to a specific number so much as when we begin to acknowledge the inevitable consequences of time and gravity. The interrupted sleep. The clothes that no longer fit. The extra aches and pains getting out of bed. Graying or thinning hair. Creeping wrinkles around the eyes. Or here’s my favorite: using the phone flashlight to read the menu at a restaurant. (My kids find this particularly embarrassing.)
There are other signs. Complaining about current music. (Or, perhaps worse, embracing music clearly not meant for people your age in attempt to seem young.) Or the growing tendency to wax poetic about the good old days to anyone who will listen, completely unaware of how tedious our nostalgic ramblings sound. (1980s’ talk, anyone?)
Whatever the symptoms and at whatever age, it all leads to the same place: the creeping realization that the pile of sand at the bottom of the hourglass is now bigger than the one on the top.
Yes, age is relative. Thirty-five seems ancient to a teenager and 50 is young to someone over 80. But there is no denying that turning 50 or reaching the more loosely defined “middle age” is when people in our society start to think of you as “old.”
My point here is not to depress you or make you feel old. Too often hitting middle age is a source of existential dread. However, speaking as someone firmly in the middle-aged camp, I’m here to tell you that the water is pretty damn warm. There’s much more to being “old” than how old you are.
Middle age, no matter when one thinks it begins, can be a time of renewal and growth in ways not possible in the earlier stages of our lives. First and foremost, growing older heightens your awareness for how precious each day is. No one is promised tomorrow. All of us know this. But middle aged people are typically much more attuned to the preciousness of each day because they almost always have more first-hand experience with loss.
The beauty of middle age is that by the time you get there life already has tipped its hand. You’ve seen a few pitches, been dealt a few cards, taken a few punches, maybe even been knocked down a few times. But as a result, in many ways you’re better then when you started. Smarter. Wiser. Stronger. Hopefully humbler. Sure, maybe jaded and a bit roughed up, but if you’re alive and breathing you’re still very much in the game.
Too often we assume that young people are more fearless because the world is new to them. They are just starting out and have little to lose. They are brimming with vigor and ambition, ready to sprint off the blocks of life. All that is true (or it should be), but I think middle aged people have an opportunity to approach life with a brand of fearlessness not possible in our youth.
As every middle-aged person will attest, the fact is you really don’t know shit about life and the world in the early years of adulthood. No young person likes hearing this. My grown children certainly don’t. Neither did I when I was their age. At the time I wrote off such sentiments as condescending ramblings of old people jealous of my youth. But as we age, we realize it’s not until you’ve had some experience actually living, until you’ve taken the punches life will throw at you and gotten back up, that you begin to understand the world.
All that experience, the good and the bad, can be rocket fuel for a second act in life we may not have thought possible. If we are fortunate enough to be healthy and able, we can try new things. Forge new relationships. Take more chances. Put ourselves out there in ways that in the past may have been inconceivable.
The alternative is stagnation. Acceptance of our lot and chained to our past. Stuck in the swamp with no hope of getting better. Gliding, or stumbling, to the end because we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that we are too old to grow. And while it’s true the things we imagined for ourselves in our youth may no longer be attainable, that doesn’t mean other unexpected, and perhaps more fulfilling, victories are within our grasp.
The journey through the second half of life, no matter when we think that begins, can be an epic one if we give ourselves a chance. In the end the only indisputable sign of getting old is giving up.