As a word person, I have problems with the term “middle age” since I am apparently in middle age, but it seems unlikely I’ll make 110 years old.
And being in the fourth decade of my career, I can’t really imagine another thirty years of work.
So the word “middle” is clearly about something else, something less mathematical.
I do sit among and mostly at the center of elderly parents, an adult child, and two grandchildren just beginning a journey on this planet. And that “middle” is often about obligations—too often about financial obligations and thin margins for being responsible, dependable.
In my mid-50s, I certainly have a profoundly different view of my 20s, 30s, and 40s—the immaturity of the 20s and 30s as well as the peak decade of the 40s now much more clear in hindsight.
But those decades were also characterized by misguided and mostly selfish “adulting”—seeking all the material trappings of being an adult and successful while running roughshod over and often entirely ignoring that which truly matters.
That is the gift of middle age—a shift in existential awareness, a patience, an opening to really recognize and even appreciate.
My granddaughter Skylar is the personification of this transition into middle age. She has been demanding that I sit in the room with her as she watches Little Einsteins this morning as I try to write this post. She just handed me a small blue toy plate to hold for no real reason while she multitasks pretend-playing and performing along with Little Einsteins.
As I hurtle toward 60, she hurtles toward 3—and I am, in middle age, profoundly aware of both in a way that I could not understand time and the human condition just a few years ago.
Yet, that gift of awareness brings as well the terrors of middle age.
The human condition is finite—and the “middle” may as well represent the arc of that condition that includes a cresting and the necessary decline.
I want more than ever to be a loving witness to my daughter’s life—and her family’s lives, including my grandchildren.
But I am profoundly aware of the limited time I have with them—the reality of death, yes, but also the inevitable decline.
Maybe I can make it to Skylar at 30, and I would consider that a wonderful gift.
But given those years, I know, will be years of decline—mental and physical.
It is a very human thing, to lose one’s mind and one’s body, gradually, ever so gradually. Then all at once.
But there is more to that arc of the human experience: we come to see saying “I love” you as trivial, and then urgent, and then irreplaceable, and then quite possibly the only thing that matters.
Now Skylar is singing and dancing to Mickey Mouse’s Monster Boogie, checking every few seconds that I am watching her.
Her eyes recognize that she is the middle—the center of the universe.
Her eyes say this quite possibly is the only thing that matters.
3 thoughts on “The Gifts and Terrors of Middle Age”
Thanks for this one in particular. I’m 51 & having the same sensations. Love the phrase “Then all at once.”
matthew (a middle school teacher in seattle)
Sent from my iPhone
I witnessed how my parents seemingly aged not at all for decades, then that “all at once” caught up to them. The rapid, painful loss of my mom, while she was still making plans for next year’s garden, the next piece of art, the next camping trip. The lingering, depressing in-between years for my dad, mind and body letting him down in every more unexpected ways. Now I am the older generation, and while the trade-offs aging has brought so far have been fair, I have trouble seeing old age as offering any decent exchanges for my life now. I hope that as I move towards my fifties I develop an attitude more like yours.