In a Middle Age
“This is 40,” we type into the blank space of our chosen social media platform. Then we lean back in our chairs, catch our breaths and wait a beat, unsure what comes next.
Forty happened to me on a December Sunday, and it felt like the close of a particularly long weekend. Day 366 of being 39. No sudden moves or subsequent pains, nothing to distinguish one age from the other—at least from the inside out.
Forty brings a quieter squeeze; the man you are presses from one side, the man you have the time left to be presses from the other.
At 20 or 30, the milestone arrives and, with it, the sensation of being stuck between boyhood and manhood. Forty brings a quieter squeeze; the man you are presses from one side, the man you have the time left to be presses from the other.
Whispers, not waves, attended my 40th birthday, yet the weathering effect is the same. The small, shaky voice within recites its creed: “I’m not ready to die.”
The usual suspects gesture furiously, trying to wave off the passing of time. The unknowns which attend death and aging. All we might leave on the table: ambitions unmet, times wasted, regrets unforsaken or—worse yet—unexamined.
Beneath the obvious concerns, another layer and a lengthy list of what might be left to imagination or aspiration. Maybe I’ll go before writing down the best words inside me, before leaving a hardback record of my soul’s best intentions for some gracious librarian to catalog.
I wring my hands over how much of America I might never see. The road cuts like living sculptures in the Plains states. Family-owned diners where I’ll never sample the hashbrowns or drink pitch-black coffee poured from a plastic-handled pot.
Can I live now—really live—knowing I might never stare up from under the rain-soaked, branched canopies of the Pacific Northwest to find the only stark patch of sky?
If I possess another 40 years, maybe less, what beauty will escape me? For the thousands of books I read, thousands more remain, my fingers missing the feel of their pages. I might never be in the room where Kamasi Washington plays an indigo cloud through his saxophone or the members of Bon Iver take up their instruments to carve canyons into sound.
Smooth, untouched tissue exists even deeper down. My breaths grow shorter, more staccato at the possibility of missing a second, let alone decades, of my son’s lifetime. I want to be the father of a father, bearing witness as he makes his best choices, consoling his every shortcoming. People say you raise your child to live without you, but the actual thought of missing his movements in the world cracks open my chest.
Such impulses, the prayers to stay alive a little longer, once provoked a crisis of faith. Barely into adolescence, I sat still as preachers painted alabaster images of heaven, then twisted the palette knife. The things of this world must grow strangely dim, they said. If they stirred your soul more than the distant sound of angel bands, it called your faith into question. How could you say you loved Jesus if descriptions of forever didn’t mesmerize you more than right here, right now?
I want to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And I don’t want any word in that sentence without the others.
I failed their Jesus at every mention of heaven. Everyone I knew lived here. I needed a little more time to be someone and do something. To make love, make change, make my name. Hell, in the teenage imagination—wide and finite as it is—the clarion Christ-call might interrupt another chance to cruise down McKellips Road with Jimmy Eat World filling my ears. The prospect felt like robbery to me.
And so I damned myself, the curses sitting just beneath my breath. Perhaps with enough repetition, the right words would become reality, a wish for eternity spoken into existence.
The guilt rarely comes anymore. I like to think God and I settled the matter. Maybe I’m just tired of making myself feel bad.
At 40, I experience something more refined than restlessness but just as fundamental. Better theology nourishes my desire to stay put. Good teachers punctured my simplistic imagination. Gone are the pristine robes and cumulus cloud rides. Gone too is my twitch at the Gnostic dream of disembodied existence.
Now I expect music and conversation, bread and wine. I believe the best sentences from the best books will exist in a library so breathtaking it makes the grand room inside Dublin’s Trinity College seem like a packrat’s study.
The best of us meeting the best of him and blooming in his presence. Whatever that looks like.
Even still the conflict lingers. Somehow it’s worse. I plant my feet, aligning them beneath my shoulders. I want to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And I don’t want any word in that sentence without the others.
We taste it now, but the goodness gets interrupted. I hunger for true unity, justice setting the agenda, and leading reconciliation by the hand. For beauty that never spoils, hearts that never ache. For a timeline in which everybody I know sees themselves through the eyes of God.
I want to realize the goodness of the Lord—and I want it now.
I know the right answers. On the day of the Lord, all the saxophone solos and shimmering synthesizers, the midnight cups of coffee, and most dynamic sentences will collide in him. And the vibrations will shake the world. Every wrong will be accounted for, every heart undivided.
I also know, for all the ways I’m changing, my view of God remains too low, my view of everything else too high. But I want to realize the goodness of the Lord—and I want it now. Not just for me, but for everyone on my block. I want it for my kid, with his innocent, untested faith and his unwritten future. Somewhere the dots in me fail to connect—or perhaps they connect too well.
I understand what the theologians mean when they write “already” and “not yet.” But I’m 40 now, and I tire of seeing those two words scrawled like a signature across my every observation, across all I say and do. It’s hard living in this middle age.