THE SECOND FORTY YEARS OF LIFE ARE DIFFERENT FROM THE FIRST FORTY
Erica and I were deep in conversation en route to Charlotte to pick up her new Royal Enfield Classic motorcycle. We have some of our best ideas when we are traveling together. Erica shared news about a friend who recently passed away. This led our discussion down the path of how many friends we know who have died or who are suffering from severe illnesses. Health issues and losing people are a natural part of growing older. I had a revelation a few years ago that successful aging is directly related to how well you manage loss. In a weird way, loss is a measurement of aging.
I remember when I was approaching 40 and thinking about my position on the number line of the human lifespan. If I was lucky, I could still have 40 or 50 years left. Great! My first forty years were pretty amazing. What never occurred to me back then was that the second forty years of life are quite different from the first forty. The first forty years move you towards your physical and financial peak. This may happen a little earlier or a little later, but eventually, you hit that peak. After the peak, there is a gradual decline. Strength, agility, and the senses all begin to deteriorate. Youthful good looks give way to the tell-tale signs of aging. Earning potential plateaus and then diminishes considerably in retirement. And, an increasing number of friends and loved ones depart this mortal coil. Aging is definitely tied to loss. But, can also be tied to something pretty wonderful, personal freedom.
The second forty years of life are an opportunity to stop living in that tiny box of social propriety. For many people, the first half of life is governed by societal expectations: Get an education, have a good career, and raise a happy family. Buy a house, new cars, impressive jewelry, gadgets, and clothing. Unquestioningly accept the religious and political beliefs you grew up with. Maintain behavior and a physical appearance that conforms to what the people around you find acceptable.
As people move into the second forty, they tend to follow one of two trajectories. They either double down on societal expectations and calcify into mediocrity, or they see through the smoke and mirrors and begin to live on their own terms. I saw a thing on Facebook the other day asking people to choose between the opportunity to go back in time and relive their lives correcting past mistakes or to receive ten million dollars in cash. Young people immediately went for the 10 million bucks. But, the older I get the more I appreciate time as the most valuable currency. Recognizing the time-limited nature of life is a curse and a gift. The curse is existential angst. All living organisms are programmed to survive and the thought of permanent nonexistence can be terrifying. The gift is liberty. When you accept that the sands in the hourglass of your life eventually run out, it can set you free! Emily Dickenson said, “That it will never come again is what makes life sweet.” Freedom from societal constraints is like being unchained from a boulder you have been dragging your whole life. To whatever degree possible, Erica and I live authentically with minimal regard for how we are “supposed” to be. The freedom is intoxicating. It doesn’t always work out well for us, but it is almost always an adventure.
While physical decline is inevitable, the rate of that decline varies dramatically depending on genetics and lifestyle. There is no fountain of youth, but regular exercise and a healthy diet are pretty damn close. I was playing a music gig on the second floor of a restaurant several years ago and recognized Sam, an elderly gentleman I knew from the gym. Sam was approaching 80 years old and hardly ever missed a workout. He was a very tall man and his claim to fame was that he could still kick the top of a door frame!
Sam was at the restaurant with a group of peers to celebrate a birthday. His friends were in the same age group but they all seemed much older than him. Sam ran down to the first floor six times to help various friends climb the stairs and get to their tables. I'm sure that if you asked Sam about a fountain of youth he would point you to the gym.
According to the research, people who maintain a high level of fitness can expect to continue to engage in physically demanding activities deep into old age. There are octogenarians who snow ski, climb mountains, and skydive.
Maintaining some level of fitness has enabled Erica and me to enjoy another type of freedom in the second half of life, novel adventures. Within the past year, we trained for a marathon, took surfing and Spanish lessons, wrote a book, traveled to Panama a couple of times, and got motorcycles. Erica is learning to ride at age 47! While we certainly acknowledge the many losses associated with aging, Erica and I are freaking loving our second forty. I have never felt more comfortable in my own skin or more motivated to drink in all of the wonders of being alive.
Until next time, here’s to all the aging heroes who are marching to their own beat and sucking the juice out of life!