Turning forty is a milestone birthday, the first of the dreaded biggies ending in 0. Greeting cards and decorative paper napkins don’t ease the pain: “Happy 40th! You’re Over the Hill!” Friends still in their thirties rag you for being in your forties as if they’ve retained their youth and you’ve gone to seed in one day. Soon, they warn, you’ll have reading glasses stashed everywhere like boxes of Kleenex and wear ear plugs to rock concerts. Is turning forty or fifty or sixty or seventy all bad?
Christian contemplative writers including Richard Rohr, Albert Haase and Thomas Keating, consider forty to be the age when we can begin to swim in the spiritual depths. Until then we’re busy accumulating, procuring, managing, and maintaining the stuff needed to construct the hill. Building blocks like education, sports, hobbies, career, marriage, children, family, real estate, physical assets, and retirement accounts consume our time.
We create different personas for the roles we play in family, church and community, and develop defense mechanisms to prevent further pain. Throw in cultural mores, societal expectations, spiritual beliefs, and the unspoken “this is how we do things”, and hill assembly takes decades. In our early years, we need all these components to avoid failure, look good, feel secure and survive what comes our way. Unfortunately this hill we’ve built becomes our version of our identity, our “false self.”
At forty we stand atop the hill with an invitation to travel down the unmapped back side of this heap. Some of us stubbornly cling to the hill we’ve amassed, and do everything possible to stay at the peak or continue construction. Others shrivel like dessicated beef stroganoff. A minority of us accept the invitation and start the journey.
When hiking in the Rocky Mountains, I’ve found the route down to be more challenging than the one up. My body is tired, the steep spots are slick, and little used leg muscles start to rebel. But little treasures await as I find things I’d missed on the way up or see them differently. The spiritual path is similar.
Prayer is a downhill treasure. On the way up, prayer is primarily us sending God our wish lists. There’s a multitude of things we want him to do, people and situations we want him to change, and we ask. On the way down our understanding of prayer expands and shifts inward. Now we learn to listen to God, to enjoy being in his company and become more aware of his presence. We seek inner healing and spiritual transformation rather than altered circumstances.
Comfort with doubt and ambiguity is another. On the way up, we look for the right path to success and are comfortable with black-and-white answers to complex questions. On the way down, gray answers are often the most appropriate response. Now we’ll consider other trails and even choose one we’re not certain about.
Growing acceptance of limitations and imperfections. On the way up, we thought we could avoid our ancestors’ mistakes and overcome all personal limitations. On the way down, we humbly acknowledge our humanity and yours. I’ll admit to owning the semi-trailer filled with my brand of boo-boos parked in the driveway.
Then there’s community. On the way up we’re busy, hurried, keen on efficiency and productivity, attracted to structured programs and the new-fangled whatever. On the way down, we appreciate company and conversation, watching people grow, and letting things happen. New isn’t always improved.
Each downhill treasure gives glimpses of our “true self” buried underneath the stockpile. That person created in God’s image who knows she is deeply loved by God and finds security and significance in that awareness. That person who receives God’s grace in surrender, and lets go of delusional attempts to control life. That person who knows who he is and who he’s becoming in Christ. That true person.
Turning forty or fifty or sixty or seventy isn’t the end of the world; it’s an invitation to spiritual adventure and a treasure hunt. How will you RSVP?