Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally turned 40. Is that still a big thing? Back in elementary school, when my pal Mike’s mom turned 40, it was a giant thing. Black streamers. “Oh Lordy, Connie is 40!” coffee mugs. “Over the hill!” Mylar balloons. As a kid, I wasn’t quite sure where to stick it all in my brain. On the one hand, it seemed like everybody was joking around, and Connie was laughing, too. But on the other hand, I was a little afraid she was going to die immediately after the last guest left her party.
I’ve always perceived 40 to be the age of giving up. A sort of signpost on the road of life that indicates you must now begin divesting yourself of all the things you’ve accumulated up to that point. Literal objects, in many cases, things you’ve been schlepping around from apartment to apartment and house to house the past 20 years. In other cases: thoughts, ideas, dreams.
Forty means getting rid of your trophies, for example. You still have the Cub Scout pinewood derby medals; you still have high school soccer participation plaques; you still have the poetry contest runner-up certificate. But there are other kinds of trophies you’ve been hanging on to, too. There was that time, before you even met the woman who’d become your wife, you flew to San Francisco to profess your love for a girl, and, even though she didn’t profess it back, and even though it hurt like hell, you did it for love. Ideal love. Now that’s a trophy of a memory, even though it’s no longer relevant. At 20, 25, 30, 35, you’d been wholly unable to separate yourself from it.
At 40, all must go.
Other things, too, things you swore would really, truly, forever encapsulate a profound and heretofore unexperienced sense of meaning and purpose in your life. The poster for that one college improv show, for example, where you and your pals absolutely killed it onstage. You made ‘em laugh and laugh, and the high was unique and beautiful and new, damn it, brand spankin’ new. “This is really something,” you thought. “Whenever I look at that poster, I swear to God, I’ll remember the essence of my humanity.”
That poster now sits curled up in the basement somewhere. At 40, you might think about the show once, maybe twice a year. A few specific moments might actually present themselves to your conscious self in the form of memories. But all the poster is now, besides home to a family of spiders, is a reminder of a prior version of you. Back when you believed everything you stumbled upon in life might mean something huge.
But at 40, you realize hardly anything has any inherent meaning. You realize that the world is just too big of a place, packed with too many people, for any sort of intrinsic meaning to be visited upon you personally. And where you once might have thought the world was your biggest cheerleader (when things were good) or the crusher of your dreams (when things were not), at 40, you realize the world never cared one way or the other. And that, only because the world is made up of 7.5 billion other people who desperately wonder whether the world cares for them. A harsh realization, to be sure, and one you’re not all that thrilled about, but you tell yourself that you do appreciate the honesty. You think.
I haven’t been 40 all that long. So far, though, I must say it’s not been that bad. I’m still me, which I’m most grateful for. I didn’t suddenly stop caring about punk rock and suddenly start caring about whatever it is 40-year-old people are supposed to care about. Equity? Community gardens? Voltron, but ironically? I should find out, so that way, when I meet other 40-year-olds, we’ll have something to talk about.
It’s just a number and age is a state of mind and all that. I do think that’s true to a large degree. At least, that’s how I plan to live. At 40, you’re surer of yourself than you’ve ever been. Not in a cocky way, not in a way in which you’re damned to a fall that you can’t see coming. At 40, you’ve already fallen like that. More than once. What you’ve found you’ve learned isn’t platitudinal, pithy, witty or all that wise—“all that wise” in the universal sense. Rather, at 40, you have wisdom that’s yours. All yours. It can’t be shared with anybody, either. They’ll get theirs if they haven’t yet. But if they never do, it’s not your job to find it for them, you newly minted 40-year-old.
At 40, you know that life is navigable. At 40, you know that if you want meaning, if you want a purpose in your life, some grand ideal as a type of sextant, you have to make it so. And while you might initially spit on the ground at the very thought, once you’ve slept on it, you know it’s true, and, what’s more, you want to get going.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.