Art, essay

The View at 40

Illustration by Aileen Torres-Bennett

I turn 40 this month. The official start of middle age.

Wow. It’s a milestone.

A good time to take stock, as I typically do on my birthday.

I give the last year a thumb’s up. I aim to make progress on at least one thing every year, and in my 39th year, I achieved basic flow and power in a new sport (kickboxing), started selling my art and related merchandise online, practiced chords on the piano for basic competency, played guitar more, and recorded original music. All of these are accomplishments, and doing them makes me happy. Kudos, Aileen.

Now, for the bigger retrospective….

I feel good about where I’m at in this stage of life. Things make more sense as I get older. This comprehension has not been without work. I’ve had to wrestle with myself over the years, and it hasn’t been pretty.

My 20s were filled with analysis paralysis and unresolved, misdirected anger. I chalk a lot of that up to the stupidity and rage of youth (punk rock, anyone?), but I also lacked awareness of my own emotions and the reasons behind them, which made it difficult for me to understand others’ perspectives (heck, I didn’t even understand my own).

The tyranny of the ego is powerful. It requires even more power to see beyond yourself and look at things from a bird’s eye view. This is a skill that must be practiced regularly for peace of mind, I find.

That is not to say that the ego is not important, but putting another label on it might be helpful. Instead of ego, let’s call it a sense of self. You need a healthy sense of self to be productive and effective in life. If your sense of self is weak, you’ll be prone to any influence. If your sense of self is rigid, then you risk your ego trying to control everything–and it’s impossible to control everything.

Aristotle’s principle of the mean can be helpful; he advises against extreme views and behaviors.

Sometimes, though, the only way to learn is to live through extremes so that you can recognize them afterward for what they are: aberrations.

My 30s has been a wonderful decade. I got married. I started to live abroad and travel around the world. I began to understand myself more and find fulfillment beyond the myopic rat race. I got dogs. I rediscovered the hobbies I loved as a kid: drawing and playing music. I improved my fitness.

Does this mean I don’t get angry or rage anymore? I can’t say that’s the case. Impatience and anger are old weaknesses of mine, but I’m learning to pay attention when these feelings come up, and I’ve started asking myself: Is this anger or impatience reasonable? If it is, then I figure out why and explain if need be. If it’s not, then I have to practice letting go (and that can be difficult because the ego has a hard time getting over itself).

Looking back over the years, I realize some of my anger arose from carrying burdens that were not mine. I had taken on other people’s anger and sadness, and I didn’t see that those burdens were not mine at all. I’ve also failed to speak up for myself when necessary. I’m now trying to practice awareness of responsibilities–my own and others–so I don’t take on unnecessary loads.

In other words, I’m trying to walk the line between being a doormat and being a jerk. If we’re too nice, people can take advantage. If we’re too harsh, we can alienate people. As Aristotle said, the middle way is best.

Looking forward, what do I want in the upcoming years? Less stress. More being fully alive and awake. More learning.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” Seneca, the Stoic philosopher of ancient Rome, said.

So much of my youth was wasted on suffering because of excessive ego. I wish I could tell my younger self: It’s okay. It’s all in your head. Just try your best, do what you need, and want, to do, and let the rest be.

Here’s to being 40.