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
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.
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
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
~ 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
~ 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.
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
~ A tendency to alienate others
irritability, thoughtlessness, low vitality, chronic anger, meanness of
~ Clinging to rigid opinions, unable to listen to another’s
~ An inability to enjoy and adapt to the changing world
need to hang on to money
~ An increasing obsession with life’s
~ 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
~ 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
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
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.