The other day I was half-listening to Woman’s Hour on the BBC when I heard a caller say, “In your late forties your luck runs out.” The words rang out clear and cool as a spring breeze. Whoever said them, uttered them as though they were the simple truth. And, instantly, I found myself washed through with relief. Immediately, I had a sense of being forgiven, of being handed a free pass. All the difficulties, all the unforeseen storms that had blown my way as I neared fifty were, perhaps, not my fault, not preventable: just how life is. Part of life’s weather.
I remember a therapist saying to me one time, “Around fifty people start to come up against stuff. They get sick. Things happen.” I was in my mid-forties then and this didn’t ring any bells. I thought she was being needlessly negative. But then things did start to happen as I closed on fifty, and things continued to happen after the half-century mark too. Not all the time or anything, but big, noticeable things I couldn’t sweep under the rug: My father was struck with a galloping version of Parkinsons, my mother’s heart problems stepped up, my family of origin seemed to come up with new forms of psychological torment every month, and, at fifty, almost right on the dot, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was tossed a bit of luck in that it was found early, but it wasn’t nothing. It’s like, at around fifty, some sort of sell-by date has been hit.
Much as it might sound like it, I actually don’t feel grim about this. Certainly, these things that happened to me, and that happen to many around this time, aren’t happy things, but it is a relief to think of “things happening” as normal, developmental, just how it is—rather than “things happening” as being a moral failure. In America, in this country where we are supposed to prevent all hardships through eternal optimism, where we “create our luck,” where being unflappable in the face of any disaster is the mark of a person worth feeding, it is a relief to think that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t responsible for the rough weather that comes our way. We don’t have to deny the trouble that shows up, pretend it didn’t occur, just to prove how strong we are. Rather, my BBC friend makes me think, there’s another, better way: We can say, “Yep, around the half-century mark, tough stuff does happen along. It’s no one’s fault.” Our job is to face into whatever variety of wind it is—dust devil, tornado, or gale, wail and rail as we need to, bear it as bravely as we have in us, but mainly just contend with the lousy weather and muddle through as best we can. Rather than being humiliated or shamed or condemned for bad luck (“Surely you did something to cause this,” carps that nasty, so-robust inner critic) perhaps we can be straight-forward about it and also treat ourselves to a little compassion. Just announce to ourselves, “Okay boys and girls! Time to put on the Sou’wester and Wellies and go down to the wreck.”