“Life Begins at 40.” A Gap Year Abroad at Midlife.
Life Begins at Forty
I didn’t plan to have my fortieth birthday party on a community permaculture farm in Brazil. It just happened to be where I was on the big day.
One could think of worse settings for celebrating a midlife milestone. At least I wasn’t eating cake in the office basement, where I worked writing software code for fifteen years. (Nothing against the people, just the setting).
Year forty caught me in the act of living my long running dream of traveling without a ticket home. If my younger self could have peered into that scene — the travelers from all over the world mixed with Brazilian locals attending my party, the eco-lodge where we looked out floor-to-ceiling windows to a green valley and a sky always putting on a show, the line of make-your-own pizzas I slid into the oven one after another — he would have been happy with what he saw.
As the day drew near, Dutra, the farm director’s right hand man and around fifty himself, declared to me that life begins at forty. When I asked him to elaborate, he said it was simple. People pass their twenties and thirties grinding themselves raw to get ahead. They further their careers, build a family, set up home, save money. But the forty-year-old realizes they can take it down a notch. Enjoy the pleasures of life, while life still gives you the chance. Work, but not “work yourself into a lather” as my wife tells me I often do. That’s when life begins.
This same Dutra also urged me to listen closely to the lyrics of Time by Pink Floyd. I knew the song, but as a young adult I had only taken an interest in the soaring guitar riffs and cacophonous intro. So I was taken off-guard by the poignancy of its message.
My opportunity came while sweeping gravel into the cracks of a newly laid cobblestone road. This was one of my volunteer tasks, and a tedious one at that. I took a break, found a shady spot, and pulled out my phone. I searched the lyrics and played the song on Spotify.
If you’ve never heard the song, or paid close attention, it is a poem about growing old. It’s about time sneaking away. The perspective of youth — endless potential and plenty of time to reach it — suddenly shatters with the realization that “ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” After a lifetime of chasing a sun that laps you many times over, you end up with one of the simplest and most haunting lines in the song, “[I] thought I’d have more to say.”
And that’s the midlife crisis in a nutshell. I thought I’d have accomplished more by now.
Not for Lack of Trying
It’s not as if I slacked off or wasted time as a youngster. I did everything right, I assure myself. I went to college, traveled, invested a lot of time into my church and the causes I cared about, learned a second language. I met and married my soulmate and had three beautiful boys. We probably worked too much, but at least we had something to show for it, and we knew when to cut back. We made the best decisions we could financially and caught a few lucky breaks — not rich, but comfortable.
One would think all of that would insulate a person against midlife ennui. And yet, here I am asking, “what now?” and knowing full well that there is no satisfying answer. In fact, chasing a meaningful life in my youth probably intensified the expectation of arrival. I always assumed if you lined yourself up right and paddled hard, life’s wave would push you the rest of the way.
Now I have caught my wave, it appears. It’s just not all that I thought it would be. And I’m not sure this realization is avoidable.
A Search for Meaning on Another Continent
My itch to see the world would have taken me for a ride, fortieth birthday or not. I don’t want to give the impression that our year traveling South America was some high-minded pursuit of greater meaning. Nor was it a desperate midlife reshuffling. I’ve longed to cast off the conventional life and all its obligations and wander for its own sake.
But my entry into midlife certainly colored my expectations. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned coming out of the year with a clear purpose for the latter half of my days. I would meet lots of people along the way, experience different ways of living. Something, somewhere would stick out in my heart as THE THING. I would find what I was meant to do and dedicate myself to it without a second thought.
Yeah, well. Here I sit in the safe comfort of my office chair after a year of amazing experiences wondering what happened. No plans at the moment to change anything. I’m still keeping an ear out for that thing, though.
But why? Why didn’t we find it? That’s a question that might take more honesty than I’m capable of. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. We volunteered at permaculture farms, places that exist to carry out a noble vision. We stayed in so many beautiful and unique places where we could have pursued new passions. We talked to realtors in Colombia. Got invitations from more than one community to join them permanently, and seriously considered it. But nothing took.
Was it fear? Nah… couldn’t be that. After all, I quit my job to travel for a whole year. That’s some risky stuff. And the countries we chose to explore aren’t exactly Disneyland getaways.
But, then again, my risk tolerance isn’t endless. And maybe I’m better at taking discrete, somewhat reversible, steps like quitting a job and getting on an airplane. Whereas committing the rest of my life to the point of closing off all other options might be a bridge too far.
Or, maybe it’s that I’ve become wise to the fact that life is a “striving after the wind,” as some enlightened folks have proclaimed. I keep wondering what else I could possibly want. My house is as big as I’d ever want it to be. I have like a dozen hobbies. I definitely have enough sons to carry on my name. I even took that big trip I always wanted to take!
I could set my sights on more, grind, and achieve it. But to what end? Once I arrive, I’ll have about three weeks before that higher plateau becomes the new baseline. And then I’m back where I started.
A Humble Happiness
This is pretty heavy stuff, I know. And I didn’t mean to bring you all down. So let me change gears.
I’ll first point out that this isn’t my last word. It’s just a momentary snapshot of my thoughts. Next month, next year, or next decade, I might find all the puzzle pieces coming together to reveal a bigger picture.
I glean hope from the fact that Moses didn’t find his calling until he was eighty years old (that according to a viral article my wife wrote for Christianity Today, and also the book of Exodus). Maybe it’s still out there and I should just enjoy my days of aimless wandering. In fact, one uncomfortable conclusion you could draw from Biblical characters is that receiving your calling DOES NOT equal happiness (see Jonah, Hosea, Saul, Elijah, and yes, Moses and Jesus). You get your calling and the party’s over.
And if I’m honest with myself, my concept of “meaning” is hard to separate from vanity. I want to contribute more to the world to help people and make it a better place… so people hold me in esteem and remember what an awesome guy I was when I’m gone. Isn’t that, at the bottom of it, what most of us mean when we say we long to “do something” with our lives?
So maybe it’s not so terrible to simply come home after a long and fulfilling year of travel. To be in a place where we can appreciate what we have and not feel obligated to strive for yet another thing. Maybe purpose can only be lived in the moment. It’s not some past laurel you can rest on, nor a higher peak where you plant your little flag. It’s a present goodness and happiness that you make every day with the people you love.
At least that’s how I comfort myself when I wake up at three in the morning, panicked that I missed the starting gun.