Last Thursday I celebrated my 35th birthday. If I’m lucky, this puts me squarely in the territory of early middle age. That means that for the most part, I’m starting to have fewer days ahead of me than there are behind. It’s a sobering thought, but not a depressing one.
Unlike most I really don’t mind getting older. I think older people rule — they have a depth of knowledge and experience that can only be obtained one way, have learned what’s really important and what might not be worth paying attention to, have grown comfortable living in their own skin. I feel that happening to me as the days tick by; I keep learning new things, experiencing more things that I can compare to my previous experiences, and am more able to learn and accept my limitations. All of the regrets I have, instead of sending me into a paralyzing depression, are valuable lessons that help me strive for the ideals I treasure and the standards I’ve set for myself. I’ve made so many mistakes, and I continue to do so. But that is part of the imperfection that is my birthright.
I still have a long way to go before I feel like I’m where I want to be, but maybe it will always be that way. Maybe that’s what life is; a constant running towards a set of moving goalposts. And I know how futile that might sound, but it’s actually exciting — the goalposts only move once you’ve reached them to find they’re a signpost to the next thing. The idea that I’m standing in a place that was a goal somewhere in my 20s (stable job, self-confidence, a loving husband, a support network of smart, honest friends) is wonderful; and the idea that somewhere down the line, I’ll be that much further along towards places I’m only beginning to think are possible now is simply wondrous.
I’ve learned a lot this year — not only about myself, but about the world around me. I’m taking great strides in learning about my fear and overcoming it, and that is opening up an exciting range of new possibilities. I can sit with my discomfort far better than ever, which means I’m more willing to push through new experiences that make me feel stupid or uncertain (that means pretty much any new experience basically). I’ve learned that I probably have ADHD, and the treatment for that allows me to be focused and organized in ways I never thought I was capable of. I own a car, can drive all over town, and have (slowly and painfully) learned how to stop impulse buying. (Mostly.)
I’ve become more engaged with the world, both politically and personally. That engagement has pushed me further to the left at a time when it feels like my country is becoming more and more selfish, alienated and conservative. It’s more important to me than ever to try and connect people, to value understanding and compassion, even as it feels more hopeless and certain that we’re all going to die fighting for the few stunted scraps that will grow in polluted soil and poisoned water. I feel more passionate about the best of humanity even when I’m almost certain we will succumb to our own demons.
It reminds me of this parable: in the afterlife, all of us sit at a long table groaning under the weight of a tremendous feast. There are long forks attached to our left hand, long spoons fixed to our right. If we’re in hell, we cannot possibly feed ourselves; the utensils are way too long to bring the food to our mouths. If we’re in heaven, we’re feeding each other; we’re alleviating the suffering of our fellow man and accepting the charity of others. It’s the same exact situation — the only thing that changes is our reaction to it.
I want to devote my life to helping other people, however I can. I want to spend the time I have left helping people to understand themselves and one another, to feel less alone, to encourage them towards caring for themselves, their community and their world. I want to take all of the misery I’ve experienced and use it to ground myself in compassion for those who are having difficulty. I want to encourage active, positive change.
The personal is the political, of course, and vice versa. I believe that the best way to change the way our society operates is by reminding the people in it what their values are, and encouraging them to pursue that in a way that betters themselves and their fellow human beings. We can do this even if we hold different values in higher esteem. We can do this without judgment or hatred for our differences. We can feed our fellow humans whatever they want, and be glad to do it. That is what heaven looks like to me.
At the age of 35, these are my ideals. I know I will fail to live up to them; I know they might change by the time I reach 45, or 55, or 65. But that’s fine. What I do today will be the foundation for what I will have built in the next decade or two, and it’s taken me a while to realize just what that means. If I want to make sure that I’m one of those kick-ass old men who are smart and certain and passionate, then I’m going to have to build myself into that right now. One goal at a time, one day at a time, one small act at a time.