(Excerpt from “Saturn Returns” from Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns)
Was there ever a time in your life when you questioned the big things?
When you’re young, birthdays are moments of greater independence, self-determination and opportunity. At sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one, the future is all open and possible.
It’s when you turn thirty-five or forty or maybe even fifty when you start asking the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I fit in? What was all that about? What do I want?
It was turning thirty-five that hit me. When I was twenty-one, I’d adopted confidence about where I’d be in life at thirty-five. I’d imagined a certain level of independence, personal and professional confidence and financial stability. Looking back now, I realize I did achieve some of these things. But at the time it wasn’t so apparent. So I lost a lot of sleep worrying about taking care of my family and about moving along in my career.
At thirty-nine, I had another shock. A friend my age had a heart attack. I knew my friend’s excessive eating, drinking and smoking contributed to his condition and that my eating and drinking habits—I’ve never smoked—were far more moderate. Still, it was the first time a contemporary had experienced a health condition normally associated with much older people.
After that, turning forty was a breeze, despite the firm I’d been with for ten years having been sold and my job lost with it. My first inclination was to find a new job. I’d never been without a good job and predictable income. Fortunately there were good offers, too. But I wasn’t comfortable with any of them. Then another friend challenged me with this thought: “Would you rather be ‘unemployed’ on your fortieth birthday or president of your own business?” It’s funny how the right question at the right moment can redirect your life. I came away from my fortieth birthday full in the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to re-invent him- or herself at age forty. It’s incredibly liberating to shed baggage you thought was important and replace it with elements of life that have greater meaning.
The fiftieth birthday wasn’t a problem, either. By then I’d figured out that reaching fifty wasn’t tantamount to putting one foot in the grave and that all things considered it was actually quite a good time in life. With fifty comes yet more realization, wisdom and appreciation.
I’m now less than a year away from turning sixty. It’s beginning to hit me that maybe there are some things that were always out there as possibilities that aren’t as accessible now as they used to be. I’m not depressed by this realization. But it did catch me off guard to even be thinking about it.
All this comes to mind because a young friend is experiencing one of these existential crises: wondering whether the path chosen is the right one; whether decisions made are wise or relationships meaningful.
Behavioral science has probably come up with some kind of therapeutic pathway for people facing such crossroads. I didn’t know enough when I was younger to know this. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and keep walking until I found sure footing.