I turn 40 today. In our youth-worshipping culture, today is the day I'm supposed to bemoan the loss of physical vitality and attractiveness. Truth is, I kind of like being this age. Consider the benefits:
Awareness. In theory, it's the young people who are supposed to be "living for the moment," but strangely they almost never do. Young people are obsessed with the future, because they believe their life is ahead of them, and that nothing they have now can compare to what's behind Door Number 3. The middle-class American slaves away in their youth, clawing their way to "success", to the best colleges and biggest careers and (not coincidently) the best possible spouse. You have to get older, with the right mix of satisfaction and disillusionment, for that future-fixation to fade. A forty-year-old looks to the future and sees his own diminishment and death – it's a lot easier for him to pay attention to the present, in both his work and his pleasures, and appreciate what he's got. Spirituality, we're told, begins and ends with the acceptance of the Now, and the middle-aged seeker, who neither longs for the future nor regrets his past, is perfectly positioned to really pay attention.
Commitment. Carpe diem sounds inspiring when you're young, but it's really a matter of necessity for those of middle age. Young people think they have all the time in the world, and so they have a hard time committing to single course of action. An older person, knowing their opportunities will be finite, will not waste them.
Experience. There is a trade-off between the vitality of youth and the experience of age. If you can maintain your health, though, experience is vastly preferable. The young have time and energy, but sadly the must spend it all getting what the old already have: experience and knowledge to solve the problems before them. A young person has the gumption to tackle a difficult problem and solve it in eight hours; the older person has seen these problems before, and solves them in two. A youth can endure his mistakes; his elders do better and avoid those mistakes entirely. Young people hit trouble and think the world is ending; older people have survived enough trouble before to know how to persevere.
Freedom. Young people have a lot of practical freedom. It costs very little to sustain just yourself, and with few responsibilities a young person can go do just about anything. As long as you don't get pregnant or wind up in prison, a young person is as free as they want to be. However, an older person has the psychological freedom of knowing who they really are. I wouldn't trade the angst of middle age for the outright anxiety of youth.
Connection. Speaking of anxiety, the most isolating sort of anxieties are the concerns about one's personal status – am I smart enough? Am I rich enough? Am I good enough? I, I , I, I, I . . . most of youth is spent obsessed with these questions -- that is, in narcissism. After a certain amount of time on this planet, all these questions seem less relevant, and you finally have the capacity to pay attention to things bigger than yourself. Family is usually the biggest wake-up call – as my wife put it, "A baby is a 24/7 Zen master whose mission in life is to demonstrate that your desires don't matter any more." The trend continues past family, though – the longer you're alive, the more you define yourself in terms of how will you serve your colleagues, your community, your country, and all of humanity. August Turak has proposed that this is direction of all personal and social evolution: "The purpose of life is to move from selfishness to selflessness." No matter what your beliefs, that seems to be the most universal definition of a meaningful life that I've yet found.
Family/your baby are "bigger than yourself" and "demonstrate that your desires don't matter anymore."
I have a few questions about that.
First of all, it seems to me not that your desires don't matter anymore, but that (acting how you think you should towards your baby) has become your greatest desire - you really strongly want to be a good parent. But even if babies do require near-total selflessness, if you are trying to reach a state where you are entirely selfless, then the baby is serving to fulfill a desire of yours, and so again you are not being totally selfless at all - in fact, since reaching that state is so important to you, it seems like you're being pretty selfish. I don't mean selfish as "I don't care if you are unhappy and it's my fault, I only care about myself" or something like that, I mean it as simply acting in a way that serves your interests, whatever those are. So, Turak's philosohpy seems like a big paradox - if you want to live your life with the right purpose, you are already off track. But maybe I'm just misunderstanding it.
Second, accepting that your family is bigger than yourself, how is that not exactly the same "deferral of the question of meaning" that you talked about in one of these posts a long time ago?
And similarly, what if your baby grows up only to become someone who says, "my desires don't matter anymore, now that I have a baby"? Was your selflessness a waste?
Good questions! And bigger than I can answer in this space . . .
I agree that "selflessness" seems paradoxical. If you define self-interest as "fulfilling the desires of the self", then how can any rational being act against its own self-interest? By definition, it is always acting in its own interest by seeking to fulfill its own desires.
The do not think "selflessness" is the same as "self-denial" or "self-abnegation." Jesus said to "love thy neighbor *as thyself*". It's still ok to love yourself and serve your own interests. But those interests take on a whole new character when your self-interest is subsumed within a larger purpose. I don't think you "lose yourself" (despite the literal meaning of "selflessness") when you serve others; in fact, the self achieves its highest expression when it gives itself entirely to a work beyond itself.
You ask: does selflessness mean anything, if it's just an ongoing cycle of each generation serving the next? That feels like an infinite regress, and kinda pointless, I agree . . . but only if you think meaning must derive from a teleology -- things being done with a particular purpose to a particular end. That can turn into a dead end, philosophically, because of the nature of impermanence. NOTHING you can achieve will last forever; all things pass away. Therefore, either everything is meaningless, OR ultimate meaning derives from something other than a teleos.
Well, yeah, after reading it a little later, I thought, "Gee, he's gettin' his Emerson on, poppin' off self-important aphorisms left and right."
It's not like I'm on the threshold of death or anything. But I do think there is a shift in mentality when you realize it's all downhill from here. I'm not alone in this: Eckhart Tolle wrote extensively in his last book about "diminishment", and how the ego reacts to the realization that it's not on an ever-expanding, ever-improving course.
My only point was that 40 is pretty close to the ideal age -- you've lived long enough to have the benefits of experience, but not so long that your physical capacity is significantly impaired.
I should also concede, in case any young turks are skeptical, that age is no guarantee of either experience or wisdom. There are lots of silly, ignorant, petty, foolish old people. Age just increases the odds of someone having had the requisite experiences to give them wisdom.