Turning 20 and then 30 didn’t feel like much of a milestone. When I turned 30 I was living in Ireland, and I went out to the local with a handful of friends. It was a great night. I wish those friends were here. But it didn’t feel like much of a transition from one stage of life to another.
Turning 40, somehow, does.
When my dad turned 40, I was 11 years old. We rented the gymnasium of St Mary’s School, invited over a hundred guests, hired a caterer, and a DJ, for a surprise party for him. I gave a short speech about how much fun my dad could be. My uncle Noel gave an even better speech. When the DJ opened the dance floor, I didn’t want to dance with anyone, so I danced with a balloon. It was a very fun night. Looking back on it, I think that the occasion taught me that there’s something important about 40, as a milestone in life.
And why is that? Well now that I’m almost 40 and no longer 11, I can reason about it much more clearly. It’s not that I am now “all grown up”, because I’ve felt like that since my mid 20’s, when I began grad school, got jobs, and ran a labour union. And it’s not that “40 is the new 30” because that’s nothing more than a meaningless anxiety-inducing, reality-blind marketing ploy.
I think what makes 40 feel like a milestone is something like this. My future is no longer fully “open”, “free”, “full of potential”, as I was often told by the adults around me when I was in my late teens. Rather, the reality is that my life is now only partially free; it is strongly configured by the results of all the choices I’ve made over the years, and the accomplishments, failures, opportunities pursued, opportunities declined, and all the forces set in motion by those things. Therefore, here at two-score years less only a few days, I look around my life, and I realize: This is it. What I have now, what I have worked for all my life up to this point, is what I get for the rest of my life. I look around my friends, my work, my material possessions, my state of health, and my world, because this is it, this is what my life has led to, and this is what it will be until I die.
And when might that be? Men in this society of mine, and in this generation, live an average of around 80 years now. So if I do manage to live to this average age, then my 40th birthday marks the half-way point of my life. That, too, is “it”: I’ve only 40 more years to do whatever I may want to do with life.
What do I have to show for my 40 years on this earth? Perhaps more than some; certainly less than many others. I earned my Ph.D and became a professor – in fact, as of last week, I am on the tenure-track. I taught myself to play guitar, and I compose my own music. I’ve published 15 books, though it’s hard to tell if anyone understands them; some are certainly better than others, and at least one which I wouldn’t mind if everyone forgot about it. I’ve lived in three Canadian provinces and two foreign countries; I’ve visited all ten provinces, five American states, and eight countries in Europe. I’ve amassed a private library of over 700 books, most of them classics in the philosophy, literature, and mythology of Western civilization. In fact I still remember what my first “library” looked like: a row of books, their spines facing out, on the top shelf of my locker at Centre Wellington high school, right next to a poster that said “Grow Your Hair.” I suppose these are interesting accomplishments, but “under a certain aspect of eternity” (as the philosopher Spinoza says) they all look rather small.
And like many people who reach the 40th year, I have had my share of tragedies. Many, now, are the friends of mine who have died; some of those friends were lovers, and I love them all still. Twice now, I conceived a child with a woman I loved, and both times, including just last week, nature took its course before the child was born. And there are some friends who are no longer part of my life because I was an asshole and I pushed them away. These tragedies and failures are also what I have to show for my forty short years. And these, too, are small beneath the aspect of eternity, but at the halfway mark of my life they loom large: the things that remind me of them still make me wistful and nostalgic, even after many years.
My brother Turlough likes to joke that growing up is a trap. And it’s not like there’s no lack of evidence to support that claim. We grow up, and then we have to deal with jobs, responsibilities, obligations to others, old injuries and health problems which once were ignorable but now linger for weeks.
But as my partner MC reminds me, growing up is also pretty good. It brings financial freedom, political rights, greater awareness of the world, greater ability to reason and to imagine, and of course much better sex. And most of my friends who are in their 40’s now, or beyond, assure me that their 40s were the best years of their lives. So it seems I probably still have much to look forward to.
And I must say that it seems I will be living my next forty years surrounded by some truly talented, beautiful, and extraordinary people. You all know who you are. And this, too, is small beneath the aspect of eternity, but it is the still small voice heard above all other voices. There is a light which shines from those who make music and tell stories and share philosophy together. It is the light of culture, the light of eudaimonia, the light of human lives bravely and wonderfully lived. If you were traveling through the air over the earth, you could look down and see it, like glowing candles in dark fields, illuminating the land around it, shining out to the universe. This light warms us like hearthfire and sustains us like air; it is all we know of ourselves, it is all we see of the world around, it is all we ever become. But, ah! It is the light that creates, the light that blesses, the light of all lights, the light of reality itself. It is the feeble fragile thing which banishes the heaviest darkness. It says no more and no less than this: “I am here” – the most important three words anyone can say.
There isn’t going to be a big party for me like there was for my Dad (I just don’t have that many friends) but there will be a potluck gathering, and some guitar playing, in the house in Elora where I grew up. It will be nostaligic, too, as my parents have sold the family home and it may well be the last party we host there, before we move out, and the new owners move in.
But I hope that on this last day, the light of culture shall shine from this old house, this place of many stories, this second Tir na n-Og, this fortress built by many hands against the envy of less peaceful folk, this nurse, this nest of happy children, this little world, this Maple Villa set by the village green, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Canada.
Let us all make such a light, with the little time we are all given to live. And life shall be good.