Get Busy Living: The Beauty of Midlife Momentum
by Matt Gewirtz
It’s almost like clockwork: “Rabbi, I’m scared to die. I’m not sure my life has meant enough.”
It might sound like I’m talking about holding the hand of a 95-year-old on her deathbed, but I’m not. (Rarely do I meet people late in life who are unprepared for death. Most of the elderly people I know tend to feel “ready.”) Those who express the fear above are usually around 40 years old. As I say, it’s almost like clockwork…indeed, for so many of us.
It’s a graduation into a new kind of adulthood, a type of alarm clock that helps bring forth a deep wisdom.
In our part of the world, unless we’re confronted with major illness or loss, most of us live our first four decades with little worry. We’re physically strong, able to exert ourselves to all kinds of limits. We can stay up late, eat and drink a lot; indeed, we have so many “extra” brain cells that we can think on overdrive, even when we’ve exhausted ourselves.
But at around 40, our eyes already begin to dim. That’s when people often need their first pair of reading glasses. Our doctors tell us we shouldn’t begin high-exertion exercise without a cardiac stress test first. And, for many, we start those medical exams that all seem to end with “oscopy.” We don’t sleep as well; we start to worry more. And it’s suddenly not as easy to take off our winter weight. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re slowing down a bit.
I’m privileged to hear these questions, asked in all kind of manners: “I wonder what my back nine will look like? I wonder if I’ll live the same number of years as I have already? Will my worries about getting sick come to pass? Will I stick around long enough to watch my children graduate, marry and have children?” All of which amounts to: “I’m worried about dying.”
At about 40, we realize we’re not invincible. We see wrinkles and gray beginning. We start to understand that all of the running we do may not lead to what we want and care about most. And ideally, each of us begins to transition in our understanding that we’d better find quality and meaning in our days because, frankly, there will be fewer days left on our personal calendars.
And perhaps we can say something we’ve always known, but rarely say out loud: Every day we live is one day closer to the day we die. That sounds depressing on its surface. But internalizing that reality is actually the impetus to embracing the beauty of living. I find that when we can actually say out loud that one day we will die, it’s in that same moment we start to live with the urgency and purpose that our lives deserve.
To be sure, finding purpose and meaning is a luxury. Becoming middle-aged means so many things. But perhaps most of all, it’s a graduation into a new kind of adulthood. It’s a type of alarm clock and it helps bring forth a deep wisdom, one which had been hiding underneath all of the frenetic activity. Each of us possesses that deep and beautiful and telling wisdom. It wants so badly to come out and lead us to the reasons we were put on this earth in the first place.
Sometimes, paradoxically, it takes us understanding that we are finite to be able to access our most precious wisdom.
I’m turning 50 soon. And I feel the weight of turning of age. I know that I’m closer to the end than to the beginning. I pray that I have many more years to drink in the blessings of our world. In the meantime, I feel the imperative to dig even deeper. I hope you will join me.
May 18, 2020