I know you well, although you exist only as a template. You exist because you, like myself, turned forty years of age in the last few months. Your name was the most popular girls’ name in 1970 (followed by Lisa, Kimberly, and Michelle, none of which are even in the top fifty most popular names today). Even when we were in our thirties, forty seemed to exist only as a number in the clouds, a number we never thought would be attached to us. Now it is, and we have no clue what to do with it, except add more years to it and try not to think of fifty.
Forty is an important age for us in the civilized world. Our average life span is about 80, and we just tripped over the halfway mark. For a long time, we didn’t feel our age. We could drink entire kegs of beer, drive a hundred miles per hour in school zones, crank the volume up on our car stereos until the windshield visibly bulged, and insert acres of various hallucinogens into our bodies without blinking (literally). We were the coolest people on Earth.
We don’t do any of that anymore. We’re either too busy or tired to do any of that. Or maybe we just outgrew that crap. Moreover, we think folks our age who still do those things are terminally immature and pathetic creatures. So we instead sneer at the youths who do that stuff now, who think they’re the coolest people on Earth. What losers.
Ah, the youth. Those high school and college kids. It never occurred to us that people born in 1990 could be grownups. They are presumably still wetting their beds and learning how to read, aren’t they? Now a great number of them, perhaps a majority of them, are more sexually active than we are. It doesn’t make sense at first, but the longer we think about it, we realize that we’re not the “hope for the future” anymore, and that these little snots are.
Worse, we’re faced with a batch of these…these kids, many of whom are wildly successful. We watch professional football games, and the only guy our age is Brett Favre, who looks half-dead even when throwing a touchdown pass. There are NFL coaches younger than us. Hollywood stars are these little kids playing dress-up, right? No. Of the five supporting actress nominees for the Oscars last year, only one – Mo’nique – was older than us. By three years.
Forty is scary. We’re still in the game, but the time remaining in the game grows shorter. I sometimes wonder what really scares us about crossing the halfway mark. Maybe it’s not death we fear as much as irrelevance, which makes death more a convenience for society than a tragedy. Remember reading Brave New World in high school? Everyone looked young until they dropped dead at the age of sixty, then were burned for their phosphorus. Two of the most popular science fiction films during our first decade of life were Soylent Green and Logan’s Run – old folks were processed into food in the first one, and there were no old folks in the latter movie’s utopia – everyone got blasted before they could sprout a gray hair. Is that what we’re afraid of? No, not being eaten: being irrelevant to the point where we as individuals offer so little use for society, we might as well be utilized as an energy or protein source. There is literal death and there is social death: when we cease to be of use to the world around us, the only difference between the two deaths is a heartbeat.
So what on earth do we do? We still have quite a few decades left; the key is to both enjoy those decades and to provide a service to the world around us. We are miracles in the universe: whether from the touch of God or the dizzying probabilities of our existence, it is our duty as neighbors, as citizens, as sentient beings to offer a portion of our time to others. To do so not only benefits the world around us, but also makes you relevant to someone, somewhere.
“I can’t do that,” you may say. “I have to work, take care of the kids, get the car fixed. I’m too busy to volunteer or whatever else you want me to do.” My simple response is: no. You are either lying or attempting to live one. If you cannot donate an hour of your life per day, per week, even per month, you must be wasting time somewhere.
“Can’t I just write a check and get it over with?” you ask. Again I respond: no. Money isn’t always the answer. Do you think, for example, a homeless shelter can thrive with money and no volunteers? Sure, if enough folks donated that the shelter could hire a bunch of people (and pay them a fair wage) to properly care for the homeless. But that doesn’t happen. Money works to a point, but your presence can mean a lot to folks: the homeless, children…and the elderly, whom – if you’re lucky – you will join the ranks of in due time.
You’re forty years old. You’re an adult. You can’t back out of it anymore. If you haven’t done so already, reach out to your world. It’s not too late. Go be someone to somebody now. The life you aid - in addition to others – will very much be your own.