‘Middle age starts much later than previously thought – at the age of 55, research suggests’ – this is the rather helpful advice sent to me by a friend on this my 55th birthday. Born on 23 February 1961 is no arguing any more with the realities of time and age and numbers. For the record I didn’t really see the point of some of the other milestones that I have (obviously) passed : 30 and 40 and even 50 seemed okay but somehow this feels to be more significant. Some of you will know that I have a particular interest in age and gerontology and 55 certainly is a key figure in all of the writing about the meaning and shape of middle-age and old age. So at one level what’s in a figure and does age really matter at all – probably not and anyway who cares?!
Facebook is clever in reminding its followers about landmarks and this image has kept popping up in recent days
it’s sort of amusing and affirming though I have found this last decade an amazing period of restoration and rebuilding and maturing. Some of this has been through adversity – what better place for stronger learning about self and others? Some of it comes with a clearer sense of both the possibilities and limitations of living. Above all and glad to be a bit more relaxed about what I really want to do and what choices might face this next bit of the journey!
I think that there are a couple of things at this point – before I begin to eat cake to mark the day – that I’d like to highlight and celebrate. I might come back to one or two further themes as I reflect further and who knows what advice birthday cards might bring?
First – when I look back over my working life I’m conscious that I have worked with some pretty demanding and even difficult people. I have not always handled myself with the kind of emotional intelligence that has emerged in recent years. Age has given me some ability in learning how to deal with social conflicts more effectively. I think I have grown in wisdom as one attempts to imagine different points of view and living with the inevitable compromises that come from a commitment to resolution. And in this – sensibly to acknowledge and accept one’s own limitations is key to maintaining humanity and a commitment to kindness and goodness.
Second. Scientists used to think that we lose a significant number of our brain cells as we age, but other researchers have debunked that theory. We now know that we hit our cognitive peak between the ages of 40 and 68. Through the years, our brains build up connections and recognize patterns—meaning we’re better problem-solvers and can more quickly get the gist of an argument. This matches my experience and reminds me why it’s often better to draw upon the experience of an older person as reservoirs of wisdom. I think therefore it’s not unrealistic to hope that the next decade might be one of creativity, integration and a deepening apprehension of truth.
Third. I’m pretty determined not to give way to grumpy old man syndrome – to be more myself – to be shaped by what I believe to be true and how I might work with others to make a difference.
“For older people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote , “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” But who is the person staring back at us from the mirror as the decades roll by? The mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of changes is, after all one of the most interesting questions of both philosophy and theology.
Perhaps the greatest perplexity of ageing is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror.
So – happy birthday – happy 55th birthday and let’s see what happens. Expect anything and thanks to all those who shape, reshape and love me.