Learning To Appreciate Middle Age


September 10, 1990|By ALICE STEINBACH

Generally speaking I do not eavesdrop on other people's conversations. But sometimes a sentence drifts into earshot that is so provocative it compels you to drop whatever you're thinking and listen.

Take, for instance, the following dialogue between two women changing their clothes after a workout at a health club:

"I hate getting older, don't you?"

"Yeah. I'd give anything to be young again."

"Me too. I can't believe I'm thirty. Middle age really is the pits."

Well, I suppose you could make a case that everything in life, as Einstein was fond of pointing out, is relative -- up to and including one's idea of when youth ends and middle age begins. I should add, however, that once past the age of 40 the line of demarcation between the two becomes much clearer: Middle age begins at whatever age you're going to be five years from now.

Few people, it seems, look forward to middle age and its dreaded companion, the much ballyhooed "mid-life crisis." Friends often tell me they see middle age as a point in the arc of life where you stop ascending and start declining.

To which I say: Lighten up! Which, actually, is a pretty good summation of what middle age can be. Lighter, somehow; less burdened by the confusion of adolescence and the desire and ambition of young adulthood. In fact, I would compare the feelings of middle age to those of being young if being young were more fun than it actually is.

Youth is a tricky thing; it's the rare person who can carry it off. Young people care too much about too many things; every tiny misstep is perceived as the end of the world, the descent into the pit from which there is no return. Youth is about intensity.

Middle age, on the other hand, can be a breeze; a time when life organizes itself into surprising patterns of lightness and grace and gentle revelations. A friend describes it as "a time when you locate parts of your nature that were submerged in youth." Middle age is about acceptance.

So how do I know all this? And what gives me the right to pontificate on such matters?

I know all this and I feel free to say all this because middle age brings with it the freedom to be wrong -- sometimes completely wrong -- without going into a tailspin about what people think. So maybe you don't agree with me. So sue me. The point is: Although I'd rather be perceived as correct in my approach to life, I can live with the knowledge that not everyone agrees with me. In the end, it is me, not you, who has to inhabit my life.

I didn't know that when I was young.

This brings me to my new credo; the words that guide me when faced with the daily decisions that ultimately define a life. To wit: If not now -- when?

In other words, a person gets to a certain age and time starts to look less infinite and more finite. If you don't do it now, when are you going to do it?

In my own life such a philosophy accounts for a recent return to piano lessons; a new, part-time teaching job; a bedroom painted in pale golden yellows; a willingness to reveal more of myself to friends; and a real energy expended in the direction of, to quote Thoreau, "affecting the quality of each day, which is the highest of arts."

Small steps, perhaps, but deeply satisfying steps. To me, that is. You, of course, will have to locate what satisfies you.

The trick to a satisfying life, someone once said (and I can't remember who), is what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.

Along those lines, here are some things I no longer emphasize: I'm not as angry. I no longer pay homage to the concept known as quality time; all time is now quality time to me. I'm less critical of others and of myself. I'm less frightened of making a mistake.

What I like about being middle-aged (There, I said it!) is that I'm younger now than when I was young. I'm also older -- a nice trait which allows one to experience the very real pleasure of enjoying younger people. I'm zanier. I take more risks and hold back less. I love my friends for who they are and not who I would like them to be.

And here's a big one: I've learned the value of laughter, of playfulness, of the lightness of being.

I guess of the two or three things I know about life, the most remarkable, perhaps, is this: Time really does fly when you're having fun.

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