My friend, Estelle, summed it up best when she found out it was my 41st birthday yesterday: “Is it your birthday today? I am not sure whether to offer congratulations or condolences!” Whoever said that life begins at 40 was quite obviously mistaken. I have given it a year now – I am not the sort to dismiss such claims out of hand – and I think I can safely say that there is little empirical evidence to support the assertion. I think the creator of that axiom coined it either in a desperate attempt to convince herself that it was true and thus to prolong her naïve confidence in life’s significance, or they were words uttered (somewhat in relief – “Ah yes! Perhaps she will buy this one and stop that infernal wailing…”) in a frantic attempt to provide solace for a friend in the throes of the metaphysical angst engendered by a growing awareness of her mortality. Well, I am not that gullible.
Sure, I know myself infinitely better than I did 10 or 15 years ago, and in many ways my life is richer than it has ever been. I am relieved to say that I no longer see the world, or my role in it, in the same simplistic and hopelessly myopic ways that I did when I was younger: I am in many ways a better person, and I can look back at the foolish preoccupations of my youth and laugh. Like a good Cabernet Sauvignon, I have matured and become really quite delicious (although if I am left much longer I am at risk of becoming slightly acerbic). But these victories have come at a cost.
First, age affects the body in horrible ways: I am pretty much always aching somewhere; I am obliged to endure (a carefully chosen word) regular prostate examinations (enough said); and I often feel that I have infinitely more to offer but have infinitely less energy with which to do so.
Second, age affects one’s worldview. As the scales of innocent youth have fallen from my eyes, I have been forced to confront a world that just doesn’t make sense any of the time, and I can see gaping holes in all of the theories we use to try order that chaos that are harder to ignore. I sometimes think that the world is a kinder place to the wicked and the stupid. The people who really prosper in this world are the ones with negotiable value systems, and those of us with actual principles just end up being disillusioned and frustrated. If one is either genuinely limited intellectually or prepared to be willingly blind, one can overlook these things and convince oneself that the fragile ideologies we cling to are enough to provide solace and meaning. But I am neither. It was definitely easier to live in the world as a child.
So I needed to know which deluded do-gooder delivered the lie of “Life begins at 40”, like a screaming baby, into a world a little too keen to embrace it. One of the joys of 21st Century living is that Google can provide all such knowledge in next to no time. Entirely by the way, I was met by the seemingly irrepressible Christian Lunatic Fringe’s offerings on why celebrating your birthday is evil. As a result, this very nearly became a different post entirely, but I decided that I would let that be a rant for another day. The phrase, “Life Begins at 40” is apparently the brainchild of a certain Mrs Parsons, from her not-quite-best-selling book, Brain Culture Through Scientific Body Building, which espouses the virtues of a vigorous exercise regimen. It was published in 1912, which makes sense, as prior to that your life expectancy probably wasn’t likely to be as high as forty, let alone sufficiently above it to optimistically suggest that life might be about to take a sudden turn for the better. It is unfortunately unlikely that I shall put in the effort necessary to locate a copy of the book, so goodness alone knows what the redoubtable Mrs Parsons had in mind when she suggested that “[t]he best part of a woman’s life begins at forty.” Suffice it to say that as a man it is unlikely to have applied to me. I am not altogether unrelieved by that.
Still, I am no closer to knowing exactly what it is that magically transforms a human life after it enters the fifth decade of its existence. It cannot be the aches and pains of a deteriorating body. I am sure it is neither an expanding waistline (although Mrs Parsons might have something to say here) nor a receding hairline. It cannot be depleted energy reserves or declining optimism. So what am I missing?
Mrs Parsons did live in an altogether different era, when people married younger and probably retired younger. Perhaps the touchingly unrealistic axiom is a reference to finally having one’s time to oneself, with the children all leaving the house and one’s career reaching its twilight. In that case, life might never begin for most of us in the 21st Century. With rising inflation and cumbersome costs of living, we cannot afford to let it.
I am pretty sure that the good Mrs Parsons had more in mind than bingo evenings and prostate exams, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt. I will see if the years to come lend any credibility to her claims. So Estelle, I’d love to give you a more definite answer, but I am afraid the jury is still out on whether to offer congratulations or condolences.