I’m turn 40 today and it’s terrible. Not personally terrible, not the body horror of randomly injuring yourself in bed, or the fear of old age in myself. Just the sudden proximity to it. To death. All around.
Today I write as a friend is going into critical surgery. As another friend’s father has died. Grandparents are getting old. Marriages are getting strained. It’s an age of divorce really, not weddings. Of funerals, not births. That’s the problem with middle-age. By the time you get there, a lot of people you know are getting old. It’s not the middle-age in myself that gets me. It’s the old age in so many people I love.
Then of course there’s the ambient stress of, just, everything. It feels like the entire civilization we live in is getting old, and not gracefully. My country has completely collapsed. I’m in the UK now and it doesn’t seem far behind. I thought it was autumn but it’s not, a heat wave just scorched the leaves off the trees. It’s not fall, it’s the fall. Even civilizations have ages, and this one is definitely dying.
But me, personally? I’m fine. I’ve honestly been 40 most of my life, my body and mind are finally aligned. I like being an adult, I like not worrying about making friends or finding a mate, I like having children and being home most (re: all) of the time. I’m fine. It’s just home that’s the problem. Honestly, I can’t even find it.
It was weird being born in the century of fucking around and finding out. It was weird growing up with all of these impossible hopes and finding out that they’re actually impossible. I grew up on the rented outskirts of suburban America, cycling past grand mansions and wondering how any of this was even possible. And I was right. It’s not possible. It was all an illusion. It was all stolen glory, boomers stealing and hoarding from future generations, creating a fraudulent civilization that will go with them when they die. And this is that age. They’re dying.
I had children in a world entirely different than I grew up in, in a both boring and awful way. There’s no flying cars or talking robots, just traffic and eavesdropping speakers. There’s no chance of their lives being better than mine, they’ve already missed years of school, gone nights without power, and learned about forex (and lack thereof) at age five. The blessing is that none of this especially bothers them. How can they miss something they never had? Whatever version of ‘normal’ I cling to them is just a distant story to them. They only started forming memories in the age of COVID-19. They don’t know enough to even mind. They’ll find out, but they’re young now. They’re in the present and that is, for us, still fine.
My wife’s great-grandmother called and wished me a happy ‘naughty forties’. It was hilarious coming from her. My plans today are to work and try and find some decent rice. 40 is weirdly young now, my parents used to feel so old to me but I’m their age now. And I still feel like a child. But they’re actually old now. And most of my grandparents are now gone. I call my one Achchi and she loves me but she can’t hear me. We’re still on this Earth together, but we know it’s borrowed time.
I feel bad because my children will know loss sooner than I ever did. My wife and I both made it this far without losing many people close to us. And yet to everything there is a season. We are nearing the fall, the natural decline of people, places, and the unnatural decline of nature itself. In middle age I can feel it. Relationships fall apart, bodies fall apart, nations and ideas fall apart. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. The center cannot hold. Things fall apart.
And yet my center still holds, a slight but—I’ve accepted it—interminable layer of belly fat. I grow gray around the edges, like a dignified old dog. As Shakespeare said, “In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part.” Such is the fifth act of life. As he said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
In middle age, I’ve come to realize that the world really is an ideological stage, and that we are merely bit players. We’re more Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern more than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s big a tragedy somewhere, but we’re just meandering off stage left, having our own petty tragedies and triumphs, largely unwatched and wholly ineffectual on the whole. Now the stage itself is coming down and it’s honestly quite confusing. As Stoppard wrote:
“There we were — demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance — and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. Don’t you see?! We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people!”
I spent my whole life acting like the person I wanted to be and by 40 I sort of am. But now they’re taking the whole stage down. The entire play, the whole pantomime of progress, it’s all coming apart. You grow up to get even close to the boomer paradise you were promised, and it all just blows up in your face. Along with the indignities of middle age and the fear of old age, we get the end of an age, the end of a geological era.
As the GZA said, via quotation, “What a time you chose to be born in.” As Tony Soprano said, “lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end.” I think of Tony because the character was my age around the start of the series. He also got emotional around birds. I’m that age now. The age of characters on TV. The age of my parents. The age of responsibility. Of tragedy.
I always thought that my parents, the people on TV, they knew what they were doing. The realization of middle age is that they don’t. That we don’t. Now I know how things work, but I also know that they don’t work. The adults in the room are effectively just blocking the exits. What I thought was competent confidence as a child is really just the blithe confidence of the completely fucked.
The personal terror and historical mercy of this age is that people start dying. It’s both too fast and not soon enough. A friend once joked that the best way to fight climate collapse would be for everyone to kill our grandparents. He wasn’t that far off. As Max Planck said “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Today people are living longer than ever, and so old lies go on and on. Ruling elites are now governing into their 80s and 90s, hoarding wealth into their graves, and effectively taking the whole living planet with them when they die.There is a new generation that’s familiar with the urgency of this age, but they’re nowhere near power. And so the whole thing burns. This civilization is a funeral pyre to the vanity of the boomers, and unfortunately we’re all on it.
And so the personal stress of people getting old and dying is connected to the ambient stress of this entire thing going down. It’s two sides of the same coin. We want to live forever and so we hang around too long. We extend our desire across corporations, across generations, to the point that our hubris scorches the air, floods the earth, and makes the very oceans rise. As Al Pacino says in Devil’s Advocate:
You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God… and where can you go from there?
We meet our fate not just on the road we take to avoid it, we literally pave the road and accelerate. At 40 I recoil from my sudden proximity to death, but death is a part of life. Shiva has to both burn the world and dance it into being. It’s a cycle. The fear of the last generation of middle-agers, however, has thrown a spanner into the works. They have tried to stop time, and thus actually stopped clime. And so here I am, the inheritor of a crime scene, trying to explain this shit to my children, leaving them a real fuckupalypse when I die. This is turning 40 at the end of the world as we know it. If you’re wondering about me personally, I somehow feel fine.