The road to Middle Life is much the same. There is no way to separate all the pains of life from the person they make us into. Part of the maturity that comes from settling into middle age is realizing that being trapped, claustrophobic, and uncomfortable was when our hearts were being formed. That’s when we were figuring out how to really breathe.
When I was young, I believed that I held unique qualities and that I would make positive changes in the world. I believed I would earn at least a measure of fame. When one day bleeds into another and eventually a person thinks to look up– and discovers gray hair at the temples and recognizes that she is not famous, the first thing any logical person does is admit failure. Then comes regret and remorse and that ol’ dusky purple feeling that our eighth-grade English teachers tried to snatch out of our hearts, back in the day.
I discover day by day that the measuring stick of my youth is no longer plumb. I am not the success I had hoped to be. I did not marry my childhood sweetheart and have the bohemian career (is this an oxymoron?) that I thought I would have. I did not manage to stay thin and beautiful. I have made my share of mis-turns and detours. I have made huge mistakes. I have dated the wrong people and I’ve married the wrong people. And if I were a younger, more romantic person, I would regret it!
Now, looking back to where two roads once diverged in a yellow wood, I would never go back and change the path I chose. Not for anything! Even though I took a trail that everybody else had the good sense to avoid, “all the difference” taught me to develop thick skin and the musculature of a pack-horse (metaphorically, of course; these days low testosterone has turned my muscles into mush).
There are two methods to learning wisdom in old age. One is by having humility pressed upon us as a result of the less-than-intelligent choices we’ve made. The other is having humility pressed upon us as a result of gravity (i.e., birthdays!).
Humility by either path makes us more tolerant. If humility resulted from our own patterns of stupidity in our younger days, we are likely to imagine that the really rude person in line in front of us is not truly rude but just hasn’t yet figured out he’s a nice person. If our humility stems from the second source (the humiliations of age), we are likely to perceive his rudeness as proof that he just suffered the onslaught of a pea-sized gall stone propelled into his bile duct by gastric Lilliputians with sling shots.
Either way, humility is the blessing of age. With it, we understand that even when we rise, achieve, succeed, complete, or win, accomplishment often brings a measure of emptiness. Meaning, however, comes from how we travel, whether we get so caught up in “getting there” that we don’t actually enjoy going there.
That’s when we realize that the guy who had fun on the way Up was the one who succeeded. And so did the girl who enjoyed a good bit of her time trekking Around–even if briars made maps of blood on her ankles and she stumbled, only by accident, upon the right trail.