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Personal Growth

On Turning 40: Aging in America

Growing older and accepting death can make you value your life or cause you to scream and run the entire time. 

While in college a general maxim regarding literature made the rounds: Writers don’t hit their stride until 40. Now, when you’re a teenager, such a sentiment is impossible — you already have a firm grasp on the world, ready to contribute book after book to the canon. 

I reflected on this notion as I turned 40 last Thursday. Good writing can occur at any age, of course, but I must admit, there’s something about having lived two full generations that offers perspective. You experience cycles; you witness changes, some of which you’re open to, others appearing ineffectual from the outset. You watch your kids (or in my case my friends’ kids) become adults, preparing (or not) to usher in another generation. 

I’ve long respected old age, even if, at times, it seems to be rushing at you a little too quickly. Having studied religious traditions for over two decades, a common theme pervades numerous cultures: Pay attention to your elders. Sadly, that’s something we see little of here in America. 

Instead of a spirituality that reveres the wisdom of aging, we’ve created a religiosity around eternal youth. Doctors nip and tuck and suck whatever hints at decay. The irony: Toxins are injected into our skin to invoke youth. We use what kills to make us appear the opposite, refusing the inevitable slide toward death. 

And at root it is death that frightens us most. In the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, the Lord of Death, Yama, asks his son what the most wondrous thing in the world is. Yudhisthira replies,

The most wondrous things in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t believe it can happen to us.

That segment is quoted in the philosopher Evan Thompson’s magnificent tome on consciousness, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy. While the bulk of the book discusses the role of sleep in our conscious lives (and how layers of consciousness construct identity), he spends a chapter on the subject of death.

Thompson’s book escapes the prevalent dogma on issues of consciousness, walking a razor’s edge between overanalyzing the brain’s hardware and reveling in the winsome abstractions of metaphor. While he’s honest with neuroscientific evidence, he recognizes the perils of relying too much on hard data. 

That’s because death can only be discussed by analogy, considering we have no other way of describing it. While Thompson finds that we’ve made amazing advances in medicine extending human aging to undreamed proportions, he recognizes pitfalls as well:

Biomedicine hides the inner experience of dying and the existential meaning of death.

Death is cultural, as is aging. While something all humans experience, how we deal with both varies widely. Entire spiritual practices are devoted to contemplating and preparing for death. What these disciplines suggest is living more clearly and thoughtfully, an idea lost in the futile marketing of “anti-aging” creams and longevity pills. 

As a yoga instructor I witness the difference between ease and desperation on a daily basis, the discrepancies between exercising for health and happiness, and bodily “enhancements” that offer the world an illusion masquerading as strength and poise. One’s character is not so much defined by how much weight they throw around as much as in the quiet moments — long stretches, meditation, pranayama. Those comfortable in their skin settle into the postures, while those continually seeking the next thing fidget the entire time, often leaving when left alone with their thoughts.

Our bodies and brains are two-way streets in the same district. If we’re screaming on the outside for recognition and acceptance, you can only imagine what’s firing up top. And so we live one step removed from the life in front of us, always craving something else, an upgrade, always thinking about what to fix because everything feels so damn broken.

Contemplating death, understanding the transience of nature, eases this existential suffering, which concurrently helps us accept the body we inhabit. When life is lived in the present moment there is no fear or awareness of death. Every step of the process becomes something to be enjoyed and learned from, not the tragedy of transience. 

Our literature reflects this as well. Consider two of our most popular formats: self-help and memoirs. A culture of constant fixing; a culture of constant chattering. More importantly, a culture of constant ME: wanting to fix myself, wanting to talk about myself — the desire to be continually acknowledged. 

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Yet death takes us all, as does its harbinger, aging. A number of my friends wrote on my birthday: Welcome to the best decade. Now I’m guessing when I turn 50 they’ll say the same thing, and I’ll again smile and laugh as this is the right attitude to take: We’re slowing down, sure, but what we’ve lost in youth we’ve gained in wisdom.

This quote by Samuel Beckett has been with me since those college days half a life ago. It’s one that I turn to when I seem a little sluggish — a reminder of the beauty of transience, what we really gain when we think we’re losing so much.

“Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

Image: Evgeny Atamanenko /


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