I always planned to write a blog post here about turning forty, especially after sharing a wonderful 80s vs 90s themed party last month with my decade sibling who bravely posted her own reflections on turning thirty for all to see.
I imagined that I would post something terribly wise about how I held this ‘big birthday’ thing lightly: Questioning the arbitrary cultural meaning given to decades whilst finding my own way to mark the passing of time.
Reflecting back on how difficult I’d found my thirtieth birthday, I knew that this one would be different. Look at how much I’ve learnt since then. I sensibly spread out the celebrations so that I wouldn’t feel the weight of expectations on one day. I met up with different people, and spent time alone, instead of putting pressure on one person to be responsible for making it perfect for me. I reminded myself that any specific age is pretty meaningless given the impossibility of knowing what percentage it is of the whole of your life.
If I knew one thing clearly at one o’clock in the morning, as I entered the second hour of a two hour crying jag that took me from my birthday into the first day of my forties proper, it was this: I couldn’t write that blog post.
So I wrote this one instead.
You can’t step outside of culture
The thing is that all the while that I was challenging those cultural rules about birthdays and decades and everything on the surface, another hidden part of me was buying into them all. For the past year a part of my mind has been scrutinising myself and my life, trying to determine whether I’ve done the things I should do with my thirties, and whether I am well placed to head into my forties. For all my questioning of checkpoint approaches to life, I secretly nurtured my own set of ideals through which to judge my success.
I had some idea that I could come up with the perfect rituals for life and have them all in place by my birthday. I wrote lists. The same old suspects: eating healthily, exercising more, meditating daily. Also writing more, seeing more friends, doing more activism. In fact so many things that it would be impossible to do them all without suddenly needing no sleep. There’s an idea: add ‘getting up earlier’ to the list. It felt like going backwards, suddenly caring about things like how I look and what my job title is, despite everything I know about how unimportant such things are.
Any time I felt depressed (which I tend to do for a few days every month or two) I’d become convinced that some more radical change must be needed and would flail around, turning the tremor into an earthquake.
Despite everything that I know about projects of ‘self-improvement’ fuelling, rather than alleviating, the self-criticism that plagues us, part of me convinced myself that that wasn’t really what I was doing. Because underneath it all was that seductive possibility: maybe this time I could really get there: to the point at which you are only the ‘good’ parts of yourself and none of the ‘bad’.
My friend Ros says something very wise: You can’t step outside of culture. And however much I want to exempt myself from this stuff I can’t. I’m in a culture that says that I should scrutinise and compare and evaluate myself and then work constantly to try to fix the lacks and flaws and imperfections. Resisting that is hard, probably impossible. It’s going to sneak back in.
What we can do
But perhaps what we can do when it sneaks back is to notice it. Just as we notice on birthdays that the more we attempt to engineer a perfect day the further it gets from perfection, so we can notice that the more we try to perfect ourselves the worse we tend to feel and the further away we drift from what we were aiming for in the first place.
Another thing we can do is to refuse to be yet another point of comparison against which others can evaluate themselves. That’s a big reason why I wanted to write this post rather than any number of others I could’ve written about my birthday, editing out the crying jag and the messiness and the desperation.
Like most people, I suspect, I learnt early on that (1) there were parts of me that really weren’t acceptable, and (2) the thing to do was to hide them from everybody. And, eventually, I became pretty good at presenting the face to the world that I thought people wanted to see, and withdrawing into myself whenever things got so tough that the unacceptable parts threatened to spill over.
But that strategy means that you constantly give yourself the message that the ‘bad’ bits really are bad (so bad that you need to hide them). And it means that other people assume that you don’t struggle and therefore feel worse about themselves. And it means that anyone you can’t hide from (the people you live with, for example, or the people who you land on when you eventually do crash) are put under a lot of pressure. They are the only people you’re letting in, so you desperately want them to help you whilst also resenting the fact that they’re seeing you this way. And probably they’re quite isolated too if they are aware that you don’t want anybody else to know that you get like this.
So what is the alternative? The alternative is to be open about this vulnerable, exposing, raw, painful stuff. Because that means that you give yourself the message that you have this stuff and that you are still okay. And it means that other people can see that you struggle too and it’s not just them. And it means that the weight of it all isn’t just on you, or the one person who you let in.
Instead of embarking on constant projects to eradicate the ‘bad’ stuff, you can put the same time and energy into accepting that it’s part of you and that’s okay. In fact opening up about this stuff means that you are more able to connect with other people than when you’re busy putting up the shutters, and pulling on the armour, and ensuring that you remain in a safe place where nobody will see you struggle.
When we withdraw and erect all these barriers we end up in more pain ourselves. We’re also more likely to hurt other people as we bump against them in all that armour, bruising them and encouraging them put up their own defences to avoid getting hurt.
The alternative is gradually softening instead of hardening: opening up instead of closing down.
And at the same time that I’ve been secretly engaged in this project of ‘maybe I can have it all fixed by the time I’m forty’, on another level I’ve been learning this stuff about opening up. When I’ve felt hurt I’ve been experimenting with responding differently. Instead of crumpling or lashing out, I’ve been trying to reflect (often for several days because it doesn’t come easy) and then to open up with people about where I’m at.
Sounds great in theory: utterly terrifying in practice. The old habits kick in all the time. For every time I manage to stay with the tough stuff and open up about it, there’s a hundred more where I take the old escape routes (withdrawing, blaming someone else, distracting myself). I’ve had forty years of practice at that.
So I won’t be writing a post in a decade’s time, or a decade after that, where I’ve reached some point of complete openness and self-acceptance (if indeed I’m fortunate enough to make it to those future birthdays). If I post honestly at those times then I suspect it will be about being just as messy and confused and struggling as I am now. Accepting that instead of trying to be something different by then is kindof the point.