My birthday was last week, on Labor Day. I've now hit 42, which is a good number. It reminds me of Jackie Robinson and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I refuse to let myself be sucked in by our culture's obsession with youth and fear of aging. Sometime in the past year I realized that, for the first time in my life, I am at peace with the knowledge of my inevitable death. Perhaps it's because I felt like I've finally accomplished enough to feel like I have not wasted my shot. I certainly didn't feel that way at 32.
At the same time, I have realized that I have changed in ways that are not all that great. In recent years I feel that I've regressed and become a much less good-natured person. In my teens and early twenties I was angry a lot, with a big chip on my shoulder. This was mostly due to emerging out of years of bullying at school, which inflamed feelings of contempt for other people and my surroundings. To protect myself from constantly being told that I was ugly and weak I told myself that I was better than the people around me. I carried this attitude with me to college, but getting social acceptance there helped wear it down. This process continued in graduate school (compounded by the humbling experience of my master's program), and by the time I hit 30 my friends would actually characterize me as "laid back" and "easy going." Nobody who knew me at age 17 would have said such a thing.
It was after getting my PhD that things changed again. Two years of being exploited in a low-paid "visiting professor" position and three years on the tenure track where I again had to face the kind of bullying that I thought I had escaped in my youth had some bad effects on me. I have become much more attuned to perceived slights, and to people condescending to me or trying to take advantage of me. I vowed after that to never again be a pushover and to always hit back twice as hard when someone came at me. Now I get mad. A lot. For awhile I thought that I had attained a healthy assertiveness that I had once lacked and whose absence had allowed other people to hurt me. Now it seems that I am in danger of becoming a bitter, angry person, the kind of middle-aged I guy I used to look at with a shudder.
Part of the issue is that as a teacher and a parent and a spouse, I have to expend vast amounts of patience on a daily basis, and I am finding all too often that when I get home from work, my reservoirs have been exhausted. I've resolved to try to fix this.
The inspiration came from thinking about some of the people I have been lucky to know in my life. I know people who have been through worse than me who are still the kind people they always were. They are the kind of people who never say anything bad about another person, who respond to challenges with patience. They are people are who are always able to maintain perspective about the problems in their lives. I need to remember their example.
If middle age has taught me anything so far, it's that the doors of possibility close with each passing day. Instead of thinking about the person I am going to be, which is what consumed my youth, I AM that person, and either have to be at peace with that, or think about how I can be better.