Just get ready,” a colleague whispered to me during a birthday party at work. “40 is great. 41 is … Well, you’ll see.”
I brushed it off with a laugh. Turning 40 struck me as an accomplishment. Four decades appeared to be the perfect age—old enough not to be foolish and young enough to still have energy and ideas and a career that seems upwardly mobile. Whenever I read the profiles of young leaders, they seem to be in their 40s. Right?
I’d always dismissed the idea of a midlife crisis—guys snapping and buying a Mustang, leaving their families, and starting over—as some cliché, hedonistic act of selfishness. I still think these decisions are foolish, but I no longer doubt the pathos that descends upon many of us when we hit midlife.
Ironically, 41 followed perhaps my best year professionally, when my writing and speaking opportunities began to flourish and younger leaders turned to me for advice and wisdom. And yet, midway through the year I began to experience a deep sense of inadequacy and emotions I had never felt before.
I found myself enduring waves of depression lasting two or three days. Waves are the only way I can describe how this darkness seemed to settle on me. Sometimes it would last for a few hours and go away. At other times it would linger for several days and then leave.
I mostly masked it, except in conversations with my wife. I was still able to get out of bed and go to work and church, but even the most basic tasks were difficult. The things I loved to do seemed to be a bore or just incredibly tedious. And I often found these feelings were completely foreign to me. I’ve always been a very sunny guy, so much so that my wife will often tease me about finding the positive in every situation, even ones that are completely hopeless. Before all this, there were times I’d endured deep disappointment and even betrayal, but I had always been able to recover quickly. I never stayed down too long. In this season, however, I’ve experienced a kind of gloom and low-level despair that I couldn’t easily rid myself of.
I was still able to get out of bed and go to work and church, but even the most basic tasks were difficult.
What is wrong with me? I often wondered. Why can’t I shake this? Many nights I lay in bed sleepless—praying, turning, questioning. Do I have value? Does God really love me? Am I who I was supposed to be at this age?
It turns out that my midlife angst is not unusual. I was encouraged to read pastor John Piper’s admission of his own difficulty at approaching the age of 41: “Something happens for many men as they move into their 40s, and not all of it is pretty.” I’ve heard this from quite a few other men my age.
Why do some suffer like this at the age of 41? I suspect that for many of us, this is when life gets increasingly complex. Forty-one often has us square in the middle of our most challenging parenting years. My oldest daughter turned 14 this year, and we endured all the difficulties of adolescence with her. Parenting teens forces people like me to reckon with what we truly believe and tests us in ways we didn’t foresee.
But there is also a sense in which we face our own mortality. At 41, our career options have narrowed and we can see, faintly, the end of our journey. What’s more, we might look in the mirror and recognize that this is who we are, with all of our strengths and flaws. Researcher and author Brené Brown says that “midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death.”
At 41, our career options have narrowed and we can see, faintly, the end of our journey.
I am finding, also, that I’m closer to loss at this stage of life. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen the marriages of peers shipwrecked due to unfaithfulness; I’ve lost family members and seen friends my age die tragic deaths; and I’ve seen heroes walk away from the faith.
Thankfully, by the grace of God, I’ve avoided the destructive choices of some who have attempted to dull the pain with substances or sex or sleek new cars. And as John Piper has found 30 years after his midlife, it has been the regular, spiritual rhythms of life in Christ that have helped me walk through this season. Prayer in those long night watches. Reading Scripture and letting the promises of God wash over me. Conversations with others who, like me, are facing midlife. And the weekly gathering with the saints in worship at church.
Ultimately, this season has been a gift in helping me face down the shame that comes not from the mouth of the Father but from the lips of the deceiver, who whispers in our ears the lies that we are not loved, we are not valued, and we are not known by the One who has made us. The book The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson is what ultimately helped me understand the necessity of meditating regularly on the knowledge that we both are known by God and know God.
What’s more, I’ve found that this crisis, provoked by the calendar, has been used by God to help sanctify me in ways I didn’t know I needed. Increasing awareness of my mortality has sanded off the edges of my self-sufficiency. Ambition becomes less of a desire for significance as it narrows into fulfilling the calling God has given us with regard to our loved ones, our gifts, and His mission. This gift of aging has me boasting less of my competence and independence and running more toward my Father.
Suggested reading for 41
(and the years beyond)
- Psalm 90
- 2 Corinthians 11-12
- The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson
- Hymn: “He Will Hold Me Fast”
To grow older is, if we allow it, to grow in weakness. This is the difficult but necessary kind of death Brown talks about. What we die to is the self-sufficiency born out of our giftedness. When we allow ourselves to go there, we find our identity in the fact that we are loved and known by our Father, and nothing else. We were not created, it turns out, to be masters of our own fates, captains of our own souls. We were made to reflect God’s image, not to take His place. Made, it seems, for weakness.
Thus, we can spend the rest of our years angry at what we think we’ve lost, or we can spend them in sweet dependence on God. This is the difference, I think, between those whose lives are marked by grace and those whose lives are filled with frustration and anger.
Turning 41 is a kind of death, but a sweet kind of death of ourselves and an embrace of the new life God is forming in us. This is, I believe, what Moses is praying about his own mortality in Psalm 90:12 (ESV): “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Photograph by Kevin Van Aelst