The facts are in, the research is done. The “social scientists” (note my quotes) have identified the age of 47 as the saddest, most depressed year of your life. Not the worst, not the poorest – just the one when you’re the most miserable.
Now to be sure, I’m not quite 47, but I’m getting there. To that end, I’m looking forward to my continued grumpiness and am oh-so grateful to Dartmouth economist David Blanchflower for the excuse. My wife is less appreciative, but notwithstanding, the petulance can continue – at least for a while.
Yup, 47; the magical age when you’re firmly settled in the last half of your life (if you’re lucky), and during which you’re reluctantly coming to the conclusion that it’s not shaping up to be the best half. Gone is the euphoria of discovery, when grand ideas (communism, libertarianism, perhaps religion) shock you. “Nobody else has understood this!” you probably said. “If only the world knew…!” has been replaced with “I hope the metro shows up on time,” or “Hey, I ordered these eggs over-medium.” “I used to read Bernard-Henri Levy,” you might find yourself saying over the top of a Clive Cussler novel. “I just can’t find the time anymore.”
You’ve given up on your epic dreams. You’re not a millionaire; if you’re lucky – really lucky – you have paid off your student debt and perhaps own a home (that is to say have entered into indentured servitude to your local bank). Your tiny nest egg, held gingerly in your imagination for a retirement that is looming in front of you, like you are the crash test dummy in the Subaru accelerating toward the brick wall, looks less impressive than it did from afar. You’re probably not Secretary of State or President; you were not a baseball legend or a rock star or a famous actor. Maybe you’ve had some accomplishments, from the days when you were young and risk-taking was within your ‘manageable interest’; maybe you even thought you did something great once or twice, which was met with a colossal yawning shrug. Perhaps you published a book or two, a feat of epic courage wed to countless hours, the greatest work of your mind thrown into the dark well of public opinion never to be seen again. You’ve given up learning guitar, or violin, and the only songs you listen to (in a closed loop) are on old scratched CDs or streamed from YouTube, comfortable old friends, between commercials for gender inclusive, diversity sensitive toasters – to your utter confusion. You have arrived at a point when your difficult decision to abandon a career in widget assembly (or visa processing) in exchange for what you’d assumed was a more intense significance is niggling at your sense of regret; the number 47 bringing you to wonder if you’d have been smarter to sell your 20 years of servitude in exchange for a pension – at least, like a prison sentence, your time would soon be up. You look over the hill at 62, wondering if you can make it – and wondering what eight hours standing in front of a Walmart mechanical door might be like.
You don’t feel as good as you once did. Your iron stomach which could digest lead pipes or Soviet cheese blocks now balks at the carefully curated plate of fruits and nuts measured out in front of you. To say nothing of drinking, you can’t do that anymore. Except for the one or two of you who fell into the deep pit of addiction – bleary eyes and rancid breath above thin frames and the twitchy energy of the alcoholic trapped in a cage of his own making – long gone are the days of bar-hopping into the night, springing back the next morning raring and ready to go. Now you go to bed at 9:30, only minutes after your son, hoping your bladder holds until the morning (note, it won’t). You’ve realized after countless sit-ups that the six-pack is never coming, and you’ve settled for fighting off the protruding midriff; which doesn’t matter because the sidelong glances you once got from the fairer sex are no longer turned in your direction. Anonymous, you are, monkish – unless you have fallen for the allure of a dashing chance encounter (aimed at your wallet, which is thinning quicker than your hair) and in doing so dashed your fortune and your future and your family to the ruins of the ephemeral – you’re committedly if boringly married.
Yes, this is the pit. The trough. The nadir. They say it gets better. The grind becomes less grinding when Jr. goes off to college; and maybe you’ll travel again, or simply wake up after the sun. You will by then have accepted your lot, with the accompanying peace of resignation. You will know the end is approaching, and with that a certain relief that will be interpreted as contentedness. You have what you have – even if it’s only social security; let’s make do. You made it through without a terminal disease, if you’re lucky, and are gratefully awaiting a (relatively) facile death. You’ve caught up with the great cloud of witnesses, and can spend time in the quiet contemplation of the hereafter or of those that came before with that singular relief, “This is no longer my problem.” Jr. is gone; Jr. in fact might have his own Jr. and you can enjoy watching him suffer, as he once made you suffer. What goes around comes around, and there is a smirking satisfaction in that too. You’ve rediscovered your faith, because you have to – the years of atheistic invincibility are well in your past, and your own mortality is something to be seriously considered. It can’t end here, right? No, to be sure, it must go on! Let us prepare. Or you shrug and turn on a rerun of “Ancient Aliens” to lament being confined to this primitive planet with only others like yourself to pass the short time that is left.
Yes, the end might be better, happier, less fraught, more peaceful – that’s what they say. But as we approach 47, that is for then, because for right now the realizations, the truths, the facts are now hitting us. And middle age is difficult to swallow, somewhat constipating and not something your aging gut can easily process.
Wonderfully exacting descriptions of my life; I appreciate your essays, this one especially!
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Ja – and this one was fun to write, if in an ironic way
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A summary of every life ever lived on this planet! By choice and nature, as a youth, I was a late bloomer, trying to figure things out before committing to anything. Before I knew it there was career, marriage, kids. Then, just as you say, we all hit a wall; mine coming months before my retirement at age 63. I experienced an upheaval that was unexpected for one who had investigated existentialism, mortality, and ontology from a much younger age. But this was different, taking me places never before seen. I realized I had never been the man I thought I was. Ego is powerful and blinds us to the truth. I realized that all of my philosophy of life was based on wishful thinking rather than observable facts. This realization was so intense, it was almost unbearable…. four years on, it is dulled but still present, lurking in the back of every thought and action. I have written all my life, but my online journal is mostly the attempt to make sense of this cataclysm in the hope that it will be of some help to others as they, in their turn, hit that inevitable wall.
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Sounds like that would make an interesting story
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