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A happy birthday: Time to reflect on the four stages

I quietly celebrated another year above ground earlier this month and realized I had reached the fourth stage of birthday celebrations.

The first stage comes when we are young and yearn to be older. We want to escape childhood and reach the magic age of 13, gateway to the teenage years. We are buoyant as we edge ever closer to 16 and being able to get a driver’s license. And 21 is the absolute apogee of anticipated age, the key that will unlock the secrets of adulthood – marriage, career, adventure beyond imagination.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand that such longing sprang from immaturity, which, you know, came with the territory. What was in fact a momentary freedom from life’s responsibilities seemed a prison, our innocent exuberance always being checked by someone with power over us.

The second stage is one of dread, somewhere between mild anxiety and outright panic, as the milestones of reality loom.

When I was growing up, we were told repeatedly to never “trust anyone over 30” and, alas, believed it, so that was a big one. That awful “middle age” began at 40, a period of life scorned by both the young and the old. And who would delight at the thought of being 50, which, if nothing else, seemed like a halfway point, either to decrepitude or something worse?

For some reason, I did not share most people’s distress over those even-numbered decade markers. The “5’s” were the stressful ages for me – 25, 45, 55. And 35 was my absolute worst age (or perhaps best, in one way), the moment when I finally understood the great mystery: Real life is not the one we get to after we’re done fooling around with this practice one. We have only one life, and this is it.

The third stage is for regret.

We look back at where we started, what we dreamed of and where we ended up and wonder if we could have taken a different path. What happened to that great American novel we were going to write, or the astounding new discovery that would amaze our detractors? Why didn’t we visit more exotic places, reach out to make more friends? How much more fulfilled would we be if we had taken more chances, been less afraid of risk? What will we leave behind as a reminder that we were even here at all?

And, now, the fourth stage.

If began, I think, with a deceptively negative feeling, finally noticing with shock one morning the wrinkled old face looking back at me from the bathroom mirror and thinking, “How in the world did that happen?” On the one hand, maybe it just crept up on me. On the other, as Norman Thayer said in On Golden Pond, “Surprised it got here so fast.”

But once I accepted it, that what I was seeing was how the world saw me every day, it was liberating.

I was beyond being vain, overly fussy about how a haircut or a minor fashion change would affect my appearance – what you saw was what you got. And I had earned the right to think what I would, and say what I thought, take it or leave it.

I had nothing to prove anymore, to anyone, about anything. My choices had been made, my battles fought. My goals, for better or worse, had been met or missed, and there was no going back. I had earned who I was, and it was my decision to embrace it or not. I own it all.

Birthdays are such arbitrary occasions, artificial signposts at which we are supposed to pause and take stock. But our journeys are so brief in the grand scheme of time that when the calendar prods us, we are bound to always hunger to be somewhere on the path we are not.

Most of the time, on the ordinary days filled with breakfasts and books and appointments and vacations and family and autumn leaves, we just live our lives, finding joy in small moments and hope for peace in the search for grace.

But the birthdays march on and demand to be noticed. I trust there will be a fifth stage. I don’t know what reflections it will trigger, but I hope to find out and let you know.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.