My daughter’s boyfriend’s Dad just turned 50, celebrating with not one but two spectacular parties with hundreds of guests. He even jumped out of a plane, thanks to the surprise skydiving present from his kids!
Turning 50 is a big deal, a major milestone. Of course all birthdays with a zero on the end are significant as they mark entry into a new decade of your life but somehow 50 represents the Great Divide, a sharp line between young and old has definitely been crossed.
Fifty means you have lived for half a century on the planet, witnessing half a century of world history. Now that is something! You have definitely seen some sights, experienced euphoric highs and anguished lows, learned some stuff and clocked some serious miles on the Journey of Life.
And somehow you sense with trepidation that you are entering new territory. You are no longer at the beginning of the exciting Journey, all innocent, fresh and perky with your packed lunch just setting out. No you are somehow weary and jaded and a little vulnerable from Life’s knocks, facing the homeward trek. Yes, you have just entered the latter stage of life. Some of us optimists, hopeful of living to 100, imagine we are in the ‘Second Half’ of life!
How does the 50 Milestone compare to turning 40? Many people face 40 with dread, believing they have reached the plateau of Life’s mountain and ‘It’s all downhill from here’, with body parts falling off, as all those humorous birthday cards like to gloat about!
But I recall being full of bravado, celebrating this pinnacle in grand style (with the Mayor and honoured guests no less). I saw myself at the peak of my maturity but still youthful, attractive and vibrant, popular and in demand, full of ambition and new projects, still raising kids and racing around in top gear.
My midlife crisis came at 47 as I approached the Big Five-Oh with rising panic. I didn’t buy a motorbike or get a tattoo. Instead I took off for New York to live out a lost fantasy as a carefree single. Needless to say it ended in tears. I returned to my marriage and picked up the shattered pieces.
Perception of age is subjective and depends on where you are perched on the lifespan. When we are children, teenagers or even in our 20s, it is impossible to imagine ever being 50. It is just too far off in the distance. And anyone over 30 is ancient. When you are young and beautiful, all wrinkly people with grey hair and glasses are seen as “elderly”, one murky blur with no distinctions between 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s; they are just a generic group of geriatrics!
When I was 39 I wrote a heartfelt newspaper column lamenting my age, how everyone in the newsroom was suddenly younger than me. My feisty 82-year -old yoga teacher was indignant and reprimanded me in front of the whole class. “How dare you claim you are old!”
Whatever our age, we will always be younger or older than someone else. The eight-year-old is indeed older than her five-year-old brother. As the profound poem Desiderata advises: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter. For always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
How old you perceive yourself internally is another matter. Baby Boomers, the generation born 18 years after the Second World War, between 1946 and 1964, generally perceive themselves as 15 years younger than their chronological age. The generation who were teenagers in the radical 60s and 70s have a tough time ageing, clinging desperately to youth, still loading up the van and heading for Glastonbury!
Now what does Desiderata says about clinging to youth? “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” Might be wise to give up wearing skin-tight hipster jeans and partying to 3 am. Rather get to bed before midnight!
In the book Facing The Fifties, author Peter A. O’Connor says it takes a person five years to 55 to admit they are in fact in their 50s! He says it is essential to move from denial to reflection. He believes we face an inner struggle between the forces of Eros (Life) and the forces of Thanatos (Death) and ultimately we must emerge grabbing Life with both hands, with real gusto, not ambivalence.
Pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson, writing in 1950 – 82, extended the work of Freud and Jung from childhood development into a study of the entire lifespan.
He claimed that there are eight stages of life with a psychological task or challenge we must face at each stage. In Middle Adulthood we must embrace ‘Generativity’ over Self Absorption, that is, learn to care for others, our families and communities and sow good seeds into the next generation.
In Old Age, Erikson says we need to embrace Integrity over Despair and share our wisdom with the world at large. If we fail to become wise elders we risk shrivelling up in isolation with a sense of failure and despair.
Meantime in facing the Great Divide of 50, the blunt fact is you are either getting older or you are dead. Personally I prefer the first option. I am grateful to still be alive at 54 when so many others are less fortunate and have not lived to this age.
To live every day with gratitude for the wondrous gift of life is the only positive attitude to cultivate in response to the inevitability of ageing.
I used to take my daughter for riding lessons to a stud farm run by a hardy old horse whisperer and his cheerful wife. I’d say: “How are you Frank?” His eyes would twinkle under his battered cowboy hat and his face would erupt in a radiant smile. “Well I woke up this morning and I was still here!”