A strange thing happened to me recently: I turned forty. It does not seem to be such a big deal, after all a lot of people make this experience, but I assure you it feels strange enough to warrant talking about it. Even the fact that it feels strange appears strange itself, as I already did this round-birthday-thing once – with my thirtieth – and should be prepared. In fact I told myself I’m not doing that again, I decided to take this round birthday in stride, I would not let it affect me or get me down. Now the only thing that I don’t find strange about this whole business is the fact that I failed. Utterly.
You probably will have noticed that I said that I did the round birthday thing once before with my thirtieth, whereas clearly there are two round birthdays before that. Obviously I’m not talking about just starting a new decade of one’s life, but of growing older, or as I perceive it right now, turning old. The thirtieth was a shock, quite unlike the previous ones. It is the first time you start noticing you’re being dragged along by the torrent of time while becoming increasingly aware where the journey will end and feeling the growing terror of its inevitability. At the time you turned ten you were too ignorant to know anything, and too fresh and young and full of life to have a concept of anything ephemeral. When you turned twenty you swam eagerly with the torrent, there was still future before you, there were still so many things to achieve and to look forward to – being accepted as an adult, finding your profession, proving yourself, being independent and self-sufficient, buying yourself stuff and enjoying it, future couldn’t come soon enough, you were eager to jump right into it. Future was a bright fairyland coming your way, not yet the headlights of the locomotive in a tunnel. Thirty is when it starts hitting home. You are still young, relatively at least, you still have the energy and the spunk to make a new start if necessary, the daring and recklessness to throw your former life out of the window and start from scratch – yet you also start getting the hints that you won’t live forever. To paraphrase Churchill, it’s not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the beginning.
When you turn thirty you start becoming aware that besides the things you want to do, there is also the growing number of things that you have failed to do. Some of those were dreams, clearly not very easily achievable – getting a pilot’s licence and owning an airplane for instance – and it does not matter much that it didn’t work out. It was too good to become true. You were quite eager, but not eager enough to commit to it entirely, there were more important things to do and you did what you had to do, so that’s fine. But some other failures are not that easy to come to terms with: People always tell you you have a way with words; you’re generally crap at school but your writing assignments receive praise, your written correspondence is received very well, your posts in fora get some very favourable comments; besides you know yourself you are not bad at writing, have a bit of good sense, and you’re not entirely without things to say, so you assume you will be writing, professionally if it works out, as a hobby if it does not. Yet at some point you realise it didn’t come to this at all, as you did not write anything at all. It is one of the most important things to you, it costs you nothing to do it, you like doing it, you find meaning in it – yet you don’t do it. There is always something distracting you, you always end up doing meaningless and pointless stuff while shifting what you want to do into the future. You are always on the point of doing it, always the low-hanging fruit, you just need to reach for it… And then you realise ten years have passed and you haven’t written a blind word.
Now the first time around – at thirty – this seems very strange, yet you can still deal with it. The time wasn’t right. You didn’t have the leisure or peace of mind. The circumstances were not right. You were not ready yet. It’s ten years hence, when you still haven’t written a goddamn thing, that you realise that at that rate you won’t write anything either. The things you have failed to do start accumulating and you have trouble justifying your failures. You stand before the commitee deliberating on your life, consisting of yourself as prosecution and defence, and the role of defence turns increasingly difficult, the questions get trickier to answer. I am not an astronaut and did not fly to the moon because, well, nobody did since I was a baby learning to control its bowels. I am not a fighter pilot because this would have required a career decision at a time when I was too young and undecided to make it . I am not a professional writer because becoming one isn’t easy and it takes a whole lot of talent and commitment… Did I try? Nope. Why not? Well, because. Dunno. I guess I’m perhaps afraid that I’ll fail? Fair enough. Next question, have you been to Japan yet?
It’s the little things where it gets tricky. Not only have I never been to Japan (which is quite a trip and rather expensive to go to), I have also never been to, say, France. Or Italy. Or Switzerland, all of which I could reach with my car in a couple of hours. Not only am I not a jet fighter pilot, or a small private machine pilot, I have also never flown in an airplane. All of these things are pretty easily achievable, only I never do them. There is never a motivation. There is always something else to spend your money on. There is always something else you need to do. Something more important, something reasonable. I’m a patient person, I don’t have to have everything right away, I can wait – I always considered this a positive trait, but perhaps I’m wrong. What if I keep waiting until it is too late? What if it is too late already?
Of course it is not only a matter of things you could do but never seem to come around doing – you also realise that you are becoming too old to do certain things. I’ll probably never learn Japanese now. I’ll never go to an university. I’ll never fly an airplane because it does not mean that much to me any more. I won’t procreate because I’m too old for it. I’m still technically capable of doing all these things – only doing them would serve no purpose other than to prove to myself that I am able to do them. Deciding not to have children is quite easy to do provided it is your decision – once you reach the point where you can’t have any, you start having doubts whether your decision was right. As you grow older, even growing older becomes different. Whereas earlier you got more freedom by growing older, your freedom is now reduced, your options dwindle and you do what you do not because you want to, but increasingly because you have no other choice. The time is coming when I won’t be able to do some of the things I listed above – of course I knew that, everybody does – but now it is in dead earnest, not some remote point in the future, it is now. Right now, I am acutely aware of this, and I am scared out of my wits by it. I feel panic rising, I feel compelled to do something but have no idea what it could be, and quite probably there is nothing I can do.