Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Last Day of the Best of Your Life?

When I turned thirty I happened to be reading The Brothers Karamazov, which includes a melancholy reflection about turning thirty. I archived it for myself; it struck me as a gloomy though largely accurate forecast for the first day of the rest of my life.

Thirty often gives men of letters pause, it seems. Dostoyevsky couldn't leave it be; neither could Michael Stipe of REM: "I can't see myself at thirty," he sang at some point in his twenties. Randy Stonehill wrote a song about the steadfast love of the Lord never changing, even as each of his fickle followers starts "Turning Thirty." I heard a live version of that song; he added the line "I wrote this song eight years ago." The audience laughed, as did the artist. I laughed too, although it made me a little sad as well.

Thirty is foreboding to many in their twenties; it often approaches the level of existential crisis in the moment of its passing. I wouldn't call it nostalgic for those of us who long ago left it behind, but it does reassert itself to the mind every now and then--especially when we're confronted with even larger round numbers.

Last summer I turned forty, and I've since been struggling with the significance of it. Do I need to become someone new even as I become someone old? Do I need to repent of my formerly young self? Do I take pride in having survived my first and second adolescences? And what about the sheer sameness of it, the arresting fact that in reality very little of substance distinguishes my fortieth year from my thirty-ninth?

Don't worry; I'm not going to buy a sports car or pierce anything. But I'm not helped by the men of letters who openly opine over the gravity of the age--men like Mark Twain, who in his recently published autobiography recalls a conversation with John Hay, who would become Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt but who, at age forty, was simply a friend concerned about forty-two-year-old Twain's lack of initiative at writing his autobiography:

At forty a man reaches the top of the hill of life and starts down the sunset side. The ordinary man, the average man, not to particularize too closely and say the commonplace man, has at that age succeeded or failed; in either case he has lived all of his life that is likely to be worth recording.

Gack. Good thing I live with a therapist. But wait--there's more:

Also in either case the life lived is worth setting down, and cannot fail to be interesting if he comes as near to telling the truth about himself as he can. And he will tell the truth in spite of himself, for his facts and his fictions will work loyally together for the protection of the reader; each fact and each fiction will be a dab of paint, each will fall in its right place, and together they will paint his portrait; not the portrait he thinks they are painting, but his real portrait, the inside of him, the soul of him, his character.

Maybe that's what it is; forty brings with it an added responsibility. We're no longer responsible just for the living of our lives; we're now responsible for laying out our lives as a case study for those who follow, to own and confess and present our celebrations and our regrets not as some act of narcissistic self-assertion but as a way of reflecting the shared reality we all inhabit--a reality that isn't limited to three dimensions but includes the passage of time. Our history is relevant to those younger than we are because it's in many ways their future; it's also in many ways their present, and ours too. And our future, well, it's the future of all God's creatures made of dust. I'm reminded of Nada Surf's poignant lyrics from "See These Bones," in which men of letters reach out from the grave to remind their progeny of their potential and of their mortality:

Look alive, see these bones
What you are now, we were once
And just like we are, you'll be dust
And just like we are, permanent

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