Why It's Great to Be Middle-Aged
5 wonderful things that become apparent only at midlife
(This article previously appeared on Cafe.com, a human-interest digital magazine.)
On Saturday morning, I turned on the 24-hour local news channel to get the weather and saw an anchor I hadn’t seen a while. She looked awful, like maybe she was undergoing chemo or had suffered a year of nonstop tragedy. We’ll call her Jenna. I nudged C in bed.
“Look at Jenna.”
“What about her?”
“She looks terrible,” I said with concern. I’m very attached to all my local news anchors. “Do you think something happened to her?”
C peered at the TV, then returned to playing Words With Friends on her phone.
“I think that’s called ‘getting older.’”
I half-chuckled, half-sighed. “Right.”
(MORE: 25 Things I Know Now That I'm 60)
I turned off the TV and got up to feed the cats and brush my teeth. As I brushed, spat and rinsed, it dawned on me, with equal parts wonder and horror, that C was right. That strange, incurable disease that had stricken Jenna was simply aging — and I had it, too.
I stared at the face in the mirror. Something was definitely going on with the eyes. It looked like someone had taken a mauve crayon and colored in my lower lids while I was sleeping. In the medicine cabinet, there was a teeny tiny tube of something called “eye rejuvenator” with a price sticker on it that read $45.99. It must’ve been wrong — the only way something in a tube that size could be so expensive is if it were uranium or diamond powder. I squeezed about $8 worth onto my index finger, massaged it into my bags, got some in my eyes, went blind, cursed and then washed it all off.
This is it what it means to be middle-aged, I thought: trying, and failing, to stop the flow of time.
Recently, it has come to my attention that my coworkers consider me to be a little — how do I put this? — “dark.” I’ve heard the words “morbid,” “pessimistic” and “grim” as well. This was news to me because I think of myself as a sprightly bunny tossing handfuls of glittering joy in every direction as he hops down the sidewalk. But perhaps I don’t do a great job of conveying this. It’s something I need to work on. So, in an effort to show the world how positive I truly am, here are five wonderful things I’ve discovered about being middle-aged:
1. Sleep is beautiful
When you’re a kid, you try to avoid sleep like it’s a loathsome chore. Here you are, this perfect little machine of energy and curiosity, and all adults want to do is unplug you. Then, in your teens and twenties, sleep becomes basically a minimum payment on fun. You can drink, dance and screw as much as you like — you just have to pay the minimum on your Sleep Visa. And you don’t even have to pay it on time; if you’re late, whatever, you’ll pay a little extra after the next rave.
But in your thirties, there’s a shift. Sleep changes from a Visa card to an Amex card and you have to pay the entire balance off every time the damn bill comes in! If you don’t get a full seven hours (or eight or nine —whatever your number is) of deep, uninterrupted, whole grain sleep, you’re screwed. You will be cranky, unappreciative and mean to strangers. If you win a Nobel Prize on the day after a terrible night’s sleep, you complain about the flat Champagne and your tux feels binding.
But, when the pall of the forties descends upon you, sleep becomes a sort of mini-vacation that you plan for and look forward to. First thing, you get to take off your shoes and socks and put your feet up, which is just plain delightful.
Second, you get to put on your sleep outfit, and whatever that is, it’s more comfortable than what you wear the rest of the day. Personally, I like cotton elastic pants that are one size larger than they need to be and a t-shirt as soft as the fur on the tip of a kitten’s ear. Then there’s that delicate, magical transition from your waking mind to your sleeping mind, when you’re pleasantly insane for a nanosecond and you think things like: Must wash the piano balloons tomorrow…
2. Not everyone has to like you
There was a time when if I went to the local deli and the guy didn’t smile at me or say hello when he handed me my bagel, I thought he hated me. For the rest of the day, a worry would simmer at the back of my mind — was it something I said? Maybe he just didn’t like my face. Maybe he thought I was privileged, spoiled and shouldn’t be gorging myself on carbs every morning. Come to think of it, all of those things were true. How did Sam know me so well? The guy just saw right through me; my feeble charms evaporated against the force field of his insight.
But when 40 came around, and sat on me like a bully in the schoolyard, I could feel some of that concern for what other people thought of me ebb away. The clock was ticking; I only had a certain amount of time on this planet and it behooved me to spend my energies getting that smile from the people who I really wanted to like me. Basically, I realized that my greatest resource is my attention, where I put my mind. And this resource, like all precious things, is limited. Better spend it wisely. Now, at 46, the circle of people whose approval I want has considerably shrunk. You could fit them all in an elevator.
Having said that…
3. Other people matter
I don’t believe there are any greater joys than a) impressing someone you respect or b) making someone you love happy. What fascinates me about this (personal) truth is that both aspects of it are dependent on other people. My own contentment is inextricably linked to other humans. The more people I can either impress or make happy, the more I increase my own chances of feeling fulfilled. However, I have to honestly care about those people and, in my present unenlightened state, I can only muster that honest care for a handful of people. But I want that circle to grow wider. I really do.
If you’ve spent any significant time alone, then you know how truly boring you are. My wife, C, worked as a writer on a TV show in L.A. for several months and when she first departed, I felt a small trill of slightly illicit, unsupervised glee. I had the whole apartment to myself. I could watch all the truly terrible horror movies she refuses to watch, eat slabs of meat, drink whole bottles of red wine, and stuff all her handbags (my god, how many bags does a woman need!) in the closet.
When she left, I cleaned the place to within an inch of its life, grilled a ribeye, uncorked an expensive Pinot and sat down to watch something called The Devil Inside. I didn’t even make it to the part where the possessed woman crawls up the wall like a gecko. And the steak? The steak was, well, a steak. Is there anything quite as sad as the sound of a single set of silverware clinking against a plate? A day into my bachelor’s life, I realized that a couple is more than two people together — it is a whole. And now I was just a half.
I am possibly more than halfway through my life. I don’t know if I can do a cartwheel anymore and, frankly, I’m afraid to find out. But my ability to appreciate those whom I love is at an all-time high.
4. You know what you don't know
I was one of those kids who raised his hand in class before the teacher had finished the question. Why? Because I thought I knew the answer. The answer to what exactly was unclear — but I really thought I knew it.
That impulse continued, albeit in a subtler version, into my teens, twenties and thirties. A small amount of knowledge about a subject bestowed on me the instant authority to expound confidently on, say, the rise and ultimate death of Capitalism, or nano-technology, or the mating habits of Bonobos. I’m sure the audience for these impromptu, unsolicited TED talks occasionally included people who actually did know about these topics, and I cringe when I think of his or her cab ride home with his or her spouse and the weeping-laughter that must have been induced by the memory of that pompous little gasbag mouth-farting over his sherry at the party.
Now I say “I don’t know” a lot more. Probably several times a day. I work at a company where the writers sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the programmers, business development people and social media strategists, and a thick cloud of inscrutable terms hovers over the room. But I think there may be an inverse correlation (okay, I’m not sure I know what that means but I’ll run with it) between my ignorance and my curiosity. The more I admit I don’t know, the more there is to know and the more I want to know it. Basically, now that I have embraced the fact that I’m an idiot, the world is just a giant bookstore to which I have an unlimited gift certificate.
Having said that…
5. You know more than you think you do
Think about it. You’ve been alive for 40 or more years and your brain has been steadily sopping up knowledge and experience for all that time. Soon, some of that knowledge will probably start to slip away, or the folders that all that data are in will be misfiled and when you search for another word for “wardrobe” you’ll imagine a knight on a horse, but “armoire” will be elusive. Right now, however, you know a great deal and the files are still pretty much in order. Physically, your body has peaked and your ability to learn new things may have peaked as well. But in terms of sheer usable brain-bulk, you’re in the prime of your mental life. (I may be wrong about this. If so, please see point 4.)
So if your forties have come upon you — suddenly, and from behind, like a mugger — it’s really not so bad. In fact, it’s kind of wonderful. You know who you are and who you’re not; you know who you love and who you don’t; and, if you’re like me, you’re more curious and appreciative of what comes next than ever before.
Peter K. Hirsch is executive editor of Cafe.com. He was head writer for the children's television program "Arthur" and has won seven daytime Emmys and a Peabody Award.