Some Thoughts on Turning Fifty

Last November, a group of around eight people approached me at a conference in Denmark where I was speaking to ask me my secrets for health and longevity. I was bemused, as the question had literally never come up before, but I did my best to speak to my personal routine and about age being a number and a state of mind. When the questions kept coming, I thought to ask them why they were so interested.

“You’re the most youthful 73 year old we’ve ever met!” the group’s enthusiastic spokesman shared.

“Why do you think I’m 73?” I asked, now genuinely confused.

The man took out his phone and showed me this entry that came up when he looked me up on Google:

The group’s English wasn’t as great as their faith in the internet, so I’m not sure they believed my protestations that I wasn’t born in the UK during World War II, but they eventually dissipated and I was left to my own devices.

The question of age has been on my mind quite often since that day, as my 50th birthday is approaching and apparently in my mind that number has a significance that none of the previous forty-nine numbers have. There is, I recognize, an arbitrariness in this number being the meaningful one. Our age is measured in the number of times the earth has circled the sun since we’ve been born, a system not that much more sophisticated than the tribal traditions of measuring time by moons and seasons.

Why my fiftieth journey around the sun feels so much more meaningful than my forty ninth is, I suspect, a bit of cultural hypnosis that I picked up somewhere along the way. I have worked with clients who felt their lives were over when they turned forty, and one in particular who bemoaned hitting “middle age” at thirty-five. I also know people in their sixties and seventies who have not yet begun to contemplate the mortality of the body in any particularly meaningful way.

But I’ve wrestled with this one. I’ve noticed myself comparing where I am in my life in relation to my peers, and as is always the case, I come off well or poorly compared on who I choose as my standard of comparison. I’ve revisited my will and my life insurance policies. I’ve started paying attention to Viagra commercials on television, just in case.

I used to joke that I had my first mid-life crisis when I was nineteen, and in many ways that’s true. That was the age where I first contemplated my mortality, wrestled with questions of the meaning of life, asked myself “is this all there is?”, and bought a sexy car to impress girls. (For the record, it was an eighteen year old Ford Galaxy 500 and impressed no one, but it was worth a try.)

So this year has been less of a wake-up call and more of a surprise. I felt low and I didn’t really understand why. Until…

For our wedding anniversary this May, my wife and I went to a music festival in Napa with our 18 year old daughter and watched Andy Grammer, Cold War Kids, Lenny Kravitz, and Stevie Wonder play live throughout the day. We were neither the oldest nor youngest in the crowd, but I couldn’t help noticing all the people around me who looked roughly my age but better looking and more successful and happier.

I grew increasingly bleak as my thoughts filled with “evidence” of my own shortcomings, all the ways I’ve failed my wife and kids over the years, and my own unfulfilled potential. And then Lenny Kravitz started to play “American Woman” and it all changed.

Watching the 52 year old Kravitz tear it up on stage made me realize that in my mind, it was all downhill from fifty – and that I was making the whole thing up. I suddenly remembered all the people I knew about who’s most important creative expressions and contributions to society happened post-fifty, from Grandma Moses’ paintings to Gandhi’s liberation of India and from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom.

By the time the 66 year old Stevie Wonder took the stage, I declared my second mid-life crisis officially over and just enjoyed the show, grateful and humbled for all that’s happened to this point and excited about whatever is still to come, both to me and through me.

While I don’t think I even heard the words in real time, there is a lyric in “American Woman” that speaks to the greatest blessings in my life:

“I got more important things to do
Than spend my time growin’ old with you”

There is nothing more important that I can imagine doing than growing as old as I get to be with the people I love around me. The love I have experienced in my life defies description, and the thing I am most grateful for is whatever wisdom it is inside me that has always somehow known that finding the love within and the people to share it with is the most important thing we can do in this lifetime.

If you’ll indulge an old man in a bit of sentimental remembrance, I remember reading a story about Gandhi that in his quest to change the world he grew estranged from his eldest son. As someone who imagines his work in the world might in some way have a positive influence on society as a whole, I thought about that for a long time and realized that while it would have been difficult, given the choice I would have forsaken India to have the relationship I have with my eldest (and only) son Oliver.

When I pointed this out to Oliver, he quickly replied “we’re fine, Dad – go take care of India.”

As the playwright Sir Arthur Wing Pinero wrote (at some point in his fifties, if I’m not mistaken):

“Those who love deep never grow old; they may die of age, but they die young.”

With all my love,

PS – For the record, my actual 50th birthday is on Wednesday, October 19th, 2016. This is what Facebook was made for people. Let’s light it up…   ?