Reflections on Reaching Midlife in the Eleventh Hour
Originally written and published in August 2020.
They came to our house wearing masks—dressed in costumes as rock stars, writers, a playboy bunny, and even an alien. “Come as you might have been” was the theme of the party, and as an eight-year-old, I watched (and recorded on our old school camcorder) with curious amusement as my father and his friends celebrated/lamented his fortieth birthday.
I made the decision that “for kids” (that would be, for me—my sister was too young to really participate), the party’s theme was “come as you will be.” I got decked out and made a costume switch halfway through the party because I couldn’t decide between jazz musician and detective. For half the party I paraded around with my saxophone and for the other half I wore some kind of trench coat and carried around a notebook.
They gave him joke gifts: a mug with “Over the Hill” written on it and another that said “Life Begins at Forty,” some disgusting looking fiber cereal that was surely discontinued before the end of the 1980s, a Grateful Dead t-shirt that was apparently “wild” by my dad’s mature professional standards. Despite the party being innocent, silly fun, the message I received watching all of this was clear: by the time you’re forty, all you can do is look back at your life from your secure, professional vantage point and joke about the former idealistic version of yourself you abandoned when you decided to get serious and become a real adult.
Next week, I will turn forty. My life is very different than my father’s was when he went through his rite of passage. I don’t have children or own a house, nor am I established in a stable professional life. I’m writing my dissertation for graduate school, am still in a transitory period geographically, and am still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.
The world is, obviously, a very different place than it was in 1989, too. To count the ways is far beyond the scope of this essay and you, dear reader, are already well of how different the world is. And as if things weren’t already intense enough before, 2020 has proved merciless in its onslaught.
Of course, my birthday is insignificant amidst people dying of COVID-19, Black people being murdered by police, and the United States teetering on the edge of a full-on fascist dystopia. But hear me out; there is something buried within these fortieth birthday party memories and where I find myself in relationship to them that feels relevant to this decaying world, this apocalyptic eleventh-hour.
Leading up to this milestone birthday, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my life and grappling with a sense of inadequacy for not being more “established” in the ways my father and others in his generation were at this age. Though I feel a sense of pride at not quite having succumbed to conventional life, I also feel like maybe I should have at least written a few books by now. But I try to fiercely resist the internalized Protestant work ethic voice and all its “shoulds,” and of course, the earlier generations’ ideal that by forty, a person should have their 2.5 kids and picket fence, is a fallacy, a banal beast that only even existed in part due to redlining among other privileges afforded the white, middle class. It is, in a sense, the empty void flip side created by systemic oppression.
I have come to recognize that I’ve held an internalized belief that by forty, I was supposed to have it all figured out. Sure, conventional thinking might say that this normalcy and success certainly may be briefly interrupted by something called a “midlife crisis” that people go through when they turn forty or thereabouts. But this narrative would have it that after this quick blip in the radar, they can continue to look back and laugh at their youthful folly—their dreams of wanting to be a poet or musician—with a knowing smile, because real adults give up those foolish dreams.
Come as you might have been. My generation, somewhere on the cusp of Gen X and Millenials, was offered false dreams in our youth—dreams of a stable world, stable work, fifty-year happily-ever-after marriages, “progress,” prosperity, and an increasingly just world. Now very rare is anyone my age who has “achieved” the milestones our parents did when they were our age—not to say, of course, that these markers are necessarily at all desirable, just that as we grew up they were ingrained in our minds as the way things are. Those of us with various degrees (literally or figuratively) of privilege have largely come to recognize the illusions of our supposed carved paths to success, and as the world we knew continues to crumble and the veil of illusion dissolves with it, we are faced with a stark reality that has the looks of a sociopolitical, economic nightmare. To even attempt to come as I might have been is a sheer impossibility, because what I might have been was rooted in delusional visions handed down to me by ghosts of the past.
It is for this reason that as we attempt to salvage a world from the scraps of rubble and build something new—some kind of future of value—it is essential to turn to the voices of Indigenous people, Black people, people of color, queer and trans people, and disabled people. The neoliberal ideals that many of us were indoctrinated into and then witnessed crumble were never a part some people’s worldview. People who have dealt with marginalization and oppression their whole lives have always known that the promise of progress, of capitalism, of economic flourishing, or of a “Great America” never truly included them. They have been living in the shambles of stolen land, stolen bodies, and stolen dreams for centuries, and know a thing or two about surviving. Those of us looking around in disbelief at the current state of the world would do well to listen to the wisdom they have to share.
For a while, I thought turning forty wasn’t that big of a deal. Fifty is the new forty, I told myself. I feel younger than I am. But that’s part of the catch—part of the oh shit moment: to feel you are still so young and then to realize, oh shit, even if I’m fortunate enough to live a long life, I may well be more than halfway through it. Or, oh shit, wait, in twenty years I’ll be sixty? That’s…kind of fucked up, wasn’t I just in college? How many creative, productive, physically or mentally sound years do I have left? Obviously, the future is always uncertain and any of us could die tomorrow or suffer a life-altering change of circumstance. That said, there seems to be something about turning forty that awakens the haunting ghost of mortality.
Collectively we find ourselves faced with a similar cold, hard truth. No longer is it only alarmists or doomsday extremists wondering how much time we have left as a species. Talk of apocalypse is mainstream. Between climate change, the current plague and prospects of various future outbreaks, endless wars, technocratic overlords, and the bizarre, surreal sociopolitical reality that has overtaken the United States and other parts of the world, there is a collective “the end may be near” sentiment in the air—and even if it’s more poetic than literal, the oh shit moment has certainly arrived.
My fortieth birthday is not a come as you might have been affair. In keeping with the vision of my eight-year-old self, I am deeming this a come as you will be moment. For all of us. As the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the truths of impermanence and death to a Western/global culture that largely ignored that reality, decimated the economy for years to come, and instantaneously changed so much about how we work, how we spend time with loved ones, and how we move or don’t move through the world, we all have an opportunity right now to fully drop any expectations of who we thought we might be, or who we were told we “should” be. Whether we are reaching midlife (if one can ever be so presumptuous that any point in their life could be confidently deemed the “middle”) or at a different phase in our lives, we are universally experiencing an uncertain future. This is terrifying, and it is also liberating. If you cannot any longer come as you might have been, you have no choice but to come as you will be, or to, perhaps even better, simply come as you are.
Personal and collective transformation are inseparably connected. A focus on psychological or spiritual development will have different phases with different emphases, but it can only go so far without the intention to liberate others. And all the while, we cannot successfully fight fascism or change the world without deep inner work. While the Jungian perspective that midlife can be a catalyst for individuation, or fully becoming who you are, can provide a helpful map, seismic shifts in our worldview and our very being can and do happen at any time in our lives, given the right causes and conditions. If we are feeling shocked, undone, terrified, furious, or confused right now, regardless of our age, it is an opportunity to shed layers of our former selves that are begging to be shed.
So who are you? Who are we beneath the all the ideas about who we should be that have been sewn deeply inside of our psyches by our families, our culture, and the society in which we live? Who we will be is who we already are, but we have to dig deep and uncover it—or perhaps open up and unleash it, set it free. Who will you be in this new post-apocalyptic world? Apocalypse is only the beginning—the Greek root of the word means to unveil, reveal, uncover, disclose—rather than the end of everything. It is the end of the world as we know it, so let’s let it also be the end of our false dreams as we know them.
How do we do this? I wonder if eight-year-old me has left us a clue with the jazz musician and detective roles that he aspired to, as potential archetypes or models that we could draw from as we move forward into the unknown. The creativity of the jazz musician, more so than any other kind of musician, is expressed through improvisation. Using the structure provided by the composer and the rhythm section as a foundation, the jazz musician spontaneously creates as she goes. What is expressed must emerge from a place of openness—a fertile ground of aliveness that is ever-changing and never static, which we connect to by staying present with and open to what is happening. If the jazz musician can dwell in that fertile, raw, pulsating space of nowness, she can create beautiful, exciting, strange magic.
The detective, meanwhile, investigates mysteries. Always aware, always receptive to clues, messages, and hints from the universe, the detective looks deeply into the nature of the situation and sees through the surface level, beyond the veil of illusion, to the deeper layers of reality within the situation. If you’ve seen Sherlock, you know how well Benedict Cumberbatch portrays the superpower of extraordinary intuition and attention to the hidden world.
Perhaps there are ways we can be jazz musicians and detectives as we come as we will be. Perhaps we can move through the world with spontaneous awareness and a sense of creativity in everything we do. Perhaps we can further cultivate our intuition so as to more deeply understand our situation, on both a personal and collective level. The ability to spontaneously create and adapt, combined with the intuitive insights mined from seeing beneath the surface will be invaluable as we move through the increasingly strange days ahead.