I've passed the statistical halfway point of my lifetime. Reflecting on the lessons I've learned so far, why people get midlife crises, and how humanism helps us age gracefully.
I turned 40 this year.
I wanted to mark the occasion by saying something profound about reaching the halfway point of my life. I was going to write a reflection looking back on my youth and adding up the lessons I’ve learned, then turning my gaze forward, to the reddening horizon ahead. It would have been two halves in balance, like weights on a scale.
Alas, those killjoy statisticians had to go and spoil my metaphor.
Thanks to COVID, life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen. As of 2020, a white American can expect to live about 78 years. So, really, I hit the halfway mark on my last birthday.
But the point stands: Whatever measuring stick you use, my expected lifespan is now more than half over. I’ve crested the top and I’m on the downslope of existence. In other words, I’m over the hill.
If this sounds gloomy, I don’t mean for it to come off that way. I’ve had a good life so far. I’m confident that some of my best years are still to come, especially now that I’m pursuing my dream of writing full-time.
Besides, I have no intention of dropping dead on my 80th birthday. I’m lucky to have gotten this far without any major health problems, and I want to keep it that way, so I’ve tried to establish a baseline of healthy habits. I don’t smoke or drink to excess. I get all my vaccines, including a yearly flu shot. I try to eat a good diet, to get out and walk every day, to exercise on a regular schedule, to get enough sleep, and to tend to my mental well-being and avoid stress.
I like to think that it’s paid off. Despite a few touches of gray in my beard, I feel young and strong and full of energy. In fact, I feel like I’m in the prime of my life. There are strokes of pure bad luck that no one can prevent, but I hope I’ve ruled out the usual culprits of untimely death.
The tree of possibility
One part of my outlook has changed since I turned 40. Despite my good health—which is a privilege that I don’t take for granted—I’ve become more conscious that my time is finite.
Of course, that’s true for every single human being from the moment of birth. But when you’re young, it’s easier to believe you’ll live forever. As I get older, the dwindling supply of my personal time becomes more apparent.
When I look back on my younger years, time seemed limitless. The future was an infinite tree of possibility, branching and spreading out into paths beyond counting. I felt as if I didn’t have to choose: like I could reach out and select whatever I pleased, assembling the ideal life by taking one piece from one branch, a different piece from another.
But as I got older, I came to realize the fallacy in this. No one can be everything or do everything. Every choice made is a different choice passed up. And many of the most desirable ones are mutually exclusive.
Out of the billions of possibilities, you can only make one set of them real. Out of the countless paths, you can only walk one. And as you tread your chosen course, the branch points fall away behind you.
Slowly, imperceptibly at first, those infinite paths start to narrow. The immense spread of possibility converges on a single actuality. By the time you get to middle age, the course of your life is mostly locked in by choices made much earlier. Many of those childhood dreams have slipped out of reach. (It’s safe to say I’m never going to be an actor, an astronaut or an Olympic athlete.)
Again, I don’t want to overstate the case. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Plenty of successful people from all walks of life had their breakthrough achievements after the age of 40, sometimes even later. But the older you are, the harder it is to radically change course—and the more courage it requires, if you’ve gotten into a comfortable rut.
Every grain is precious
This is the root of the midlife crisis. People see their dreams fading away, and make a desperate grab for the ones that still seem attainable. Sometimes they blow up their life in the attempt.
Fortunately, that’s not the situation I find myself in. For whatever reason—perhaps good choices I made, perhaps privilege I was born with, perhaps mere luck—I’m content with how my life has turned out so far. I have a few scars and a few regrets, such as everyone acquires over time, but for the most part, I’m happy. If I could live it all over again, I wouldn’t make any drastically different choices.
And, as I said, I’m confident that there will be more good times ahead. Even if I only live as long as the average, four more decades is a lot! That’s comforting, because there’s so much I still want to do. There are more places I dream of seeing, more books to read and more books to write, and more memories to make with my family.
But I feel an undercurrent of urgency. That big 4-0 is a sharp reminder that I don’t have unlimited time to do whatever I still aspire to do. Every grain left in the hourglass is precious, and I feel pressure to make them count.
I don’t feel rushed, exactly. That would be a misunderstanding of what makes life meaningful; it’s not a race to check off as many boxes as possible. It’s more important to drink deeply, to live in the moment and savor each experience as it happens. But I try to ask myself on a regular basis: Is this what I most want to be doing right now?
Wandering in the dark
I like to think that being a humanist has helped me weather the midlife stage without a crisis. I’ve always known that we only get one life and it’s vitally important to make the most of it. I’ve never been lulled by religious fantasies which serve to keep thoughts of death at a comfortable distance, until a reminder of one’s mortality makes it inescapable. Perhaps that knowledge helped me plan accordingly, and that’s why I don’t feel a sudden urge to shake my life up.
Then again, maybe this is just self-congratulation. I don’t think any philosophy, religious or secular, has a complete set of solutions to life’s great dilemmas. We’re all trying our best to live a good life, to figure out what gives us purpose and makes our existence worthwhile. We’re all wandering in the dark, seeking after clues and hints, trying to follow trails left by others who’ve gone before us.
Learning an attitude of humility is also part of aging well. As you come to realize how circumstance has shaped your life, you can’t help but see that the same is true for everyone else. That doesn’t mean right and wrong don’t exist, or that we can’t hold people responsible for their choices. On the contrary, I’ve gotten more passionate as I’ve gotten older. But it does mean—to import a religious aphorism into a secular context—that we should always think, when we meet someone who’s ignorant or misguided: “There but for the grace of random chance go I.”
Everyone holds the beliefs they do for reasons that make sense to them. When you meet another person in the spirit of that understanding, you can speak more persuasively in terms of what matters to them. This empathy is what makes human connection possible. It’s how we build understanding, friendship, and love. And in the long run, across the fall of decades, through the storms of the world and the endless river of change, those connections are the only things that make life truly worth living. When everything that’s shallow or fleeting has fallen away, they’re the sources of happiness that endure.