From the outside it looks steady.
It looks resolved. Sitting heavily in a chair, with settled opinions and stodgy shoes—there’s something unbudgeable about the middle-aged person. The young are dewy and volatile; the old are toppling into fragility. But the middle-aged hold their ground. There’s a kind of magnetism to this solidity, this dowdy poise, this impressively median state.
But on the inside … You’re in deep flux. A second puberty, almost. Inflammations, precarious accelerations. Dysmorphic shock in the bathroom mirror: Jesus, who is that? Strange new acts of grooming are suddenly necessary. Maybe you’ve survived a bout of something serious; you probably have a couple of fussy little private afflictions. You need ointment. It feels like a character flaw. Maybe it is a character flaw.
For all this, though, you are weirdly and unwontedly calm, like someone riding a bicycle without using his hands. You’re not an apprentice adult anymore. You’re through the disorientation period, the Talking Heads moment—“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house / With a beautiful wife / And you may ask yourself / Well, how did I get here?” You’re through the angst and the panic attacks. You don’t yet have the wild license of old age, when you can write gnarly, scandalous poems like Frederick Seidel, or tell an interviewer—as The Who’s Pete Townshend recently did—that “it’s too late to give a fuck.” But you’re more free. The stuff that used to obsess you, those grinding circular thoughts—they’ve worn themselves out. You know yourself, quite well by now. Life has introduced you to your shadow; you’ve met your dark double, and with a bit of luck the two of you have made your accommodations. You know your friends. You love your friends, and you tell them.
I’m generalizing from my own case, of course, because what else can I do? Besides, a sense at last of having some things in common with the other humans, the other wobbling bipeds—this, too, is one of the gifts of middle age. Good experience, bad experience, doesn’t matter. Experience is what you share, the raw weight of it. The lines around the eyes. The bruising of the soul. The banging up against your own boundaries, your own limits.
Limits, limits, thank God for limits. Thank God for the things you cannot do, and that you know you cannot do. Thank God for the final limit: Death, who now gazes at you levelly from the foot of your bed, and with an ironical twinkle, because you still don’t completely believe in him.
At any rate, if you’re reading this, you’re not dead. So: Should you leap gladly, grinningly, into these contradictory middle years, when everything is speeding up and slowing down, and becoming more serious and less serious? The middle-aged person is not an idiot. Middle age is when you can throw your back out watching Netflix. The middle-aged person is being consumed by life, and knows it. Feed the flame—that’s the invitation. Go up brightly.
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