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November 1995

Fears at 40 Something

by Paula Payne Hardin

It hit her like a punch in her stomach! She needed bifocals. "It can’t be, surely I am not that old." moaned Jan, age forty, to herself. She felt tears sting her eyes. "I wish that cute young lab technician would stop placating me!"

Kurt, who just endured his fortieth birthday, saw an advertisement for my seminar on midlife choices. "I think I will go" he thought, "I feel so uneasy about my forties — I’d rather be thirty!" At the seminar one of the exercises included imagining one’s self and one’s life in another ten years. Kurt began to feel sick to his stomach and abruptly left the room. Later he explained to the group that it was impossible for him to consider being fifty without feeling physically ill.

A lovely young artist in her early forties was in the same seminar. As Zanya pondered an image of an older, wiser self, it was interrupted by an image of her mother. Zanya was visibly angered by this. One of her fears for her future centered around her mother — she did not want to repeat her mother’s relationship or aging patterns.

Fears like these make us feel helpless. We want to stop the clock. The forty-year mark seems especially painful for many. Thoughts and intimations of one’s own mortality creep in and can prove explosive. It can be a time of intense questioning.

Some speak of fears centered around their physical prowess. For some, a malaise comes unbidden and their careers no longer bring the same meaning and vitality. Relationships that were once rewarding feel disappointing and we wonder if this is all there is. As wrinkles encroach, hair thins, and body shape sags, fears of becoming unattractive and undesirable haunt.

As a nation we adulate youth. It dominates our ideas of the "good life." This cultural pressure is a force to be reckoned with. We fear that being old means being loveless, ugly, useless. Sometimes employers discriminate against mature employees. The medical profession seems to treat aging as an enemy, to be overcome, subdued.

This adulation of youth tells us that there must be something "bad" about getting older. In this country, we give our mature talent gold watches and send them off in their golf carts and air stream campers, saying in effect "You go off and play now, you have become irrelevant. We’ll run the world."

Because something in us rebels against this indictment, denial of the aging process becomes an expensive way of life. As a society we spend billions on anti-aging procedures. It is a seductive trap.

Using large portions of our energy and time in such ways will eventually sabotage us, stealing the very resources we need to explore what it means to live, love, and age well. Midlife is the time to ponder the terms upon which life has been given to us and to learn to flourish within those terms. It is the time to form a new vision worthy of the rest of our lives.

If we flee from a realistic partnership with time, we might focus too much attention on our bodies and miss the larger picture of the many splendored beings we really are — spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

Over half a century ago, the innovative thinker Carl Jung decried the absence of preparation for those who are entering the second half of life. Most people, he said, enter life after forty with the false assumption that the values, truths, and ideals that had served them adequately so far will continue to do so.

Because of this false assumption, people make choices in the second half of life that invite unhappiness — and also make them difficult to be with. Jung chose harsh words to describe people caught in this negative process: hypochondriacs, niggards, doctrinaires, applauders of the past, and eternal adolescents, to name a few.

How can we face the future with power and farsightedness? By facing our fears. Fears, if we look at them — really look — end up becoming our allies, like beacons, they call us to our deeper truth. Truth by its nature is empowering, transcendent, and we sense the Divine moving in our lives. Avoiding the truth about our lives sabotages us because we then make decisions based on illusion and false premises. The truth will always point us in the direction of freedom.

Facing the truth about the life we have lived so far, the mistakes we have made, the successes we have had, is a necessary midlife task on the way to a profound opportunity for transformation. Truth demands that we also look at the dark side of ourselves, the dark side of our culture, giving up the immature idea that bad things don’t happen to good people, and that we are somehow invincible.

Touching into these dark mysteries opens well-springs of vitality and wisdom. We gain a chance to live by new rules and values that lead to a richly rewarding second half of life — for ourselves first and then spreading naturally to those around us. We learn we have the ability to move beyond the usual pacifiers of physical beauty and strength, money, and self-gratification. We learn to move beyond immature romanticism, ambitions, and burdensome self-consciousness into a larger world of creativity, a unifying life purpose, seeing all creation as sacred, and claiming the joy that rests on unshakable spiritual strength from within.

In my research I observed the characteristics of those who are maturing positively. They are people who:

~ Are able to view others and the world generously, forgiving human faults in themselves and others
~ Are giving toward themselves and others
~ Have a caring and positive relationship with nature
~ Have had a pivotal event or events leading to transition and growth
~ Are reflective and seek self-understanding
~ Have simplified their lives and learned to set limits
~ See themselves as spiritual
~ Exercise and care about what they eat
~ Can laugh and cry easily
~ Are sought out by others for perspective, counsel, wisdom, and creative insight
~ Are committed to continued learning
~ Are hopeful people. They take their dreams seriously
~ Have the courage to deal with their own mortality and make appropriate plans.

My research also uncovered characteristics of those who are aging negatively and are caught in self-absorption and stagnation. They increasingly manifest such personality characteristics as:

~ A tendency to blame others and feel isolated
~ A tendency to alienate others
~ Moodiness, irritability, thoughtlessness, low vitality, chronic anger, meanness of spirit
~ Clinging to rigid opinions, unable to listen to another’s views
~ An inability to enjoy and adapt to the changing world
~ A need to hang on to money
~ An increasing obsession with life’s inequities
~ A noticeable lack of intimate friends of any generation
~ The inability to be a "wise elder" who has something of lasting value to give to others
~ A high use of alcohol, tranquilizers, TV, or other forms of escape
~ A tendency to create guilty feelings in others
~ An excessive focus on themselves, especially on health problems and bodily functions
~ Fears of the future

Naturally enough, we all have a mixture of qualities from both lists. But what we want to do is increasingly cultivate the positive behaviors that have long-range benefits leading to high life satisfaction for ourselves and those around us.

Developed men recognize their sage potential and learn to handle power in psychological, mental, spiritual, and physical realms. They foster compassion in themselves. Mature women cultivate healthy self-esteem leading to assertive action on behalf of their values. Such individuals forge new models of healthy living and loving through the middle years and beyond.

By accepting our losses and aligning ourselves with life’s deeper truths, we free ourselves to wield the considerable power that is potentially ours, the power to discern and to live in harmony with what has heart and meaning for ourselves, for those close to us and for the world.

We become empowered to speak out against social injustice, to stand for fairness and mercy. We have more leverage and know-how than when we were young. We can take less compromised stands than the young, speaking honestly both in small ways and big. We model deeper more rewarding relationships where compassion, playfulness, and respect for differences is the norm. We form new definitions of beauty and strength. We contribute to building a better world, giving gifts that last beyond our lifetime.

And when we reach the end of our lives, we can let go, embracing the mystery of what comes next because we have learned to trust life, to risk, to love — to really live!

Excerpted from the book What Are You Doing with the Rest of Your Life? Choices in Midlife (New World Library), by Paula Hardin. Paula directs Midlife Consulting Services in Chicago, teaches, lectures, and appears on radio and TV talk shows. Her new book, Love After Love: Stages of Loving, will be out in 1996.

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