I turned 40 two weeks ago, a milestone that felt pretty big for me. I confided in a few friends about the angst I had, and most of them disclosed that they had felt the same way leading up to 40, but then after the Big Day, it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve had that experience as well. I’m settling into this new decade of life comfortably, and have been reflecting on the gifts of being older . . . namely, having the life experience to learn from my mistakes.
As I’ve contemplated some of the wisdom I have earned in 40 years of life, here are some of the things that come to mind. For full disclosure: I’m not perfect in some of these areas. In fact, this list is, in many ways, a reminder to myself. I’ve found that sometimes you can know something cognitively, and even believe in something as a value, and yet not live that out in behavior. Here’s what I know to be true today, and am trying to reflect in my actions:
I don’t need my friends to be exactly like me. When I was younger, as many youth are prone to do, I tended to choose friends based on common interests. The people who dressed like me, who listened to the same music, who enjoyed going to the same clubs and concerts on the weekend. Of course, it’s second nature to gravitate toward those who share the same passions and interests, even as adults. The details are different but the temptation to cluster around similar people is still there. But I’ve learned that the problem with defaulting to doppleganger friendships is that shared interests can only take a friendship so far. I’ve found that intimacy has less to do with shared interests and more to do with shared vulnerability, and above all, a commitment to growth. The best friendships are birthed from a desire to engage at a deeper level ... to challenge one another, to grow individually and collectively, and to be willing to learn from one another. That’s why I can count among my friends atheists and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, vegans and hunters, single women and moms (and dads.) I no longer need to agree with my friends on all aspects of life . . . I just need friends who are committed to being real and authentic in our relationships.
I can ask for what I want. I don’t expect other people to read my mind. If I want something from my husband, I tell him in clear and specific terms. If a friend has hurt my feelings, I tell them. If someone asks me what I want to do, I make a couple suggestions instead of shrugging my shoulders. Life is too short for the “they should have known” business.
I don’t have time for passive-aggressive people. This is related to above, but I have made a conscious effort to distance myself from friends who are unable to process conflict in healthy ways or express their frustration with others in passive or punishing ways (or by gossiping or triangulating with other friends.) I believe that any close relationship will inevitably run into conflict and hurt feelings, and I think the only way to move forward in healthy relationship is to put it on the table and be direct with one another. I am always open to feedback and constructive criticism in my relationships. In fact, being able to mutually grow and analyze flaws is something I value greatly in my friends. But I am no longer giving energy to situations where I’m expected to figure out (or mind-read) about why someone is upset with me. If they don’t have the maturity or respect to be direct with me, I’m not going to spend time trying to figure it out.
I won’t pretend that I’m not ambitious. I think that we’ve come a long way in terms of women being able to fulfill their professional pursuits, but I’ve noticed that there is still a trend for us to downplay or diminish our accomplishments. I’ve seen far too many women shrug their shoulders or give an “aw shucks” when asked how they achieved their success when I know full well that these women, behind the scenes, have gotten there by sheer work and a drive to do well. I think it’s time for women to stop pretending to have stumbled into their successes, and to own that we have set and made goals out of fortitude and work ethic. Our daughters deserve to see that women can be feminine and nurturing and ambitious at the same time. I will no longer downplay my achievements as a whim, because I’ve worked very hard to be where I am today.
I understand my privilege. While I’ve worked hard for my accomplishments, I also recognize that having been born to a white, middle-class family in the United States afforded me an unearned advantage. Rather than wallowing in guilt about this, I feel like my response should be to use what resources I have to empower those trying to rise above poverty, to give a voice to the voiceless, and to be an ally to those dealing with discrimination and injustice.
I no longer believe that pain and suffering are a result of a punitive God. I’ve never been a prosperity gospel kind of person, but I feel like the Christian evangelical movement still holds on to some fallacies about God doling out health and blessings as a result of obedience. I think God blesses us with his presence and comfort, but I no longer think that Good Christian Living is a way to gain a life free of strife or illness or trauma. Good people will endure tragedies. Bad people will become millionaires. I want to live a life of gratitude towards God but that’s no longer contingent on me getting what I want.
I won’t say “the Lord told me to . . .” I have stricken this phrase from my vocabulary, because I’ve seen it used as an excuse or a way to avoid accountability for decisions. While I may believe that God gives me conviction, I will no longer play this trump card with others. It shuts down conversation and can be too easily used to manipulate or Jesus-juke others.
I am a feminist. For a long time I avoid that label because I thought it had too much baggage – that it meant I disliked men or shaving my armpits or wearing makeup (all things I actually REALLY LIKE.) But as I’ve grown in my understanding, I now feel comfortable calling myself a feminist because I strongly believe in the equality of the sexes, and recognize I don’t need to fit a mold to hold those beliefs.
I don’t need my kids to like me. I think they do, generally, but I refuse to parent in a way that caters to their approval. If they think I’m the meanest mom on the block because we don’t allow first-person shooter games, or if they are endlessly annoyed with my rules around screen time or candy, I’m okay with that. I look forward to having a wonderful friend relationship with my kids . . . when they are grown-ups. But right now, I’m making the decisions that are best for them and if they don’t like it, that’s alright for now.
I need to take care of my body. Up until my mid-30’s, “taking care of my body” really meant eating in a way to lose weight, regardless of the nutritional value, or exercising just enough to stay in my skinny jeans. Now, I recognize that I need to eat right because it makes me feel better . . . because I notice a marked difference in my energy and attitude when I’m eating whole foods. And because exercise is the best anti-anxiety med on the market. If these things have the added bonus of weight control, great . . . but I’m going to eat well, get more sleep, and get more exercise because I care about myself. Not just because I’m trying to meet some beauty norms.
I need to prioritize sleep. I’ve never been good at putting myself to bed. I’m a chronic insomniac and for decades I’ve sacrificed sleeping in order to stay up late and get more hours into the day. It used to be that I could function like that, but I know now that my body and mind pay a price when I’m functioning on too little sleep. I’m grumpy, have less patience, and my brain is fuzzy. I need to stop trying to get it all in and just go to bed.
I need to have my own “things.” I love being a wife and a mom, but for my personality, I also need to have some activities and passions that are exclusively mine. I need a sense of identity and purpose beyond my husband and children. They are my first priority, but I also make time to do things that give me a sense of purpose outside the home.
This is some of the wisdom I’ve earned in 40 years, but I’m still actively working to apply it all. I’m a work in progress, but I have to say, I’m enjoying this stage of life.