Life Happens – Things You Really Learn in Your 40’s


Recently a friend posted a link to a list lessons you learned when you’re in your 40’s. I remember writing something fairly trite in response (I learned that it’s possible to drink a bottle of wine and type an article for the New York Times), getting called on it, then putting more thought into something better yet concise. Here’s what I came up with: Life happens. You realize that your parents are people who’ve been faking it the best they can until they can’t. And then it hits you that this is exactly what you’re doing and hopefully you’ve learned enough to manage the curves you get thrown in the process.

I didn’t take extremely long to ponder it, but I feel that it’s mostly true. When I was a teenager or in my 20’s, I got thrown a few curves. I was fortunate enough to go to college and do well yet unfortunate to graduate in a bad economy. I got married young while there was a tough job environment to contend with and had to learn how to be an adult. Then there were a couple job changes and relocations. Then came kid number one and then the second who, no matter how much he looked like the first, was his own person from Day 1. This was followed by career evolution and direction changes throughout my 30’s. I still felt young enough to be confident yet unsure of the path I was laying down as I went.

Finally, in my early 40’s I felt like I’d grown a huge amount as a person and that my wife and I had the parenting thing down. It was no longer really faking it as new scenarios arose. I was experienced enough to handle things. Interestingly, that’s exactly how I’d felt about my dad throughout my entire time on the planet. That he’d had things figured out and could handle anything. When mental illness hit him, I saw that this was probably true at one point but had become a façade. The neurologists said that he had no awareness of what he’d become – which was a shell of who he used to be. At the same time, I have to believe that there was a point where the bravado and confidence turned to bullshit. He had to decide he’d just compensate by dictating to the world how it should be. Like driving down the highway at 100mph and not bothering to check your blind spots because you’re going so fast that nothing’s coming up on you. He put blinders on and focused so hard on outrunning everything around him that he tuned out his own collapse.

I’ve also come to see the trauma my mother has gone through. Not only has she had to come to grips with what’s happened to her life partner, but she’s had to take over what he used to do. Both aspects have been a challenge and she’s had to learn how to really do some things she understood at a conceptual level but now has to do at a mechanical level. She had the same degree of comfort and familiarity as my father but in a different way – and saw it unravel as he did. As a result, I now see her more as a person working her way through life than as the parental figure who raised me. That’s been an eye opening experience for me too as I’ve helped her contend with it.

Fastball or curve
There are plenty of defining moments in Life. How you play depends on how you build skills – because you don’t know if it’s a fastball or a curve.
That takes me back to my original statement. We all fake it to a certain degree. There are often points in time where we’re on top of our games. It all flows and comes to us on our own terms. There are also times when there are curveballs which look like they’ll cross the plate in one spot and then have the bottom drop out. How we handle them lets us know what we’re really made of. If it’s a pitch we haven’t seen before then we have to swing at them with that muscle memory which knows how to hit. That may be enough. We may strike out looking silly. Hopefully we learn so that the next time we see something similar, we can crush it out of the park. Each pitch is different though – and all we can do is give it our best shot.
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4 thoughts on “Life Happens – Things You Really Learn in Your 40’s

  1. Another incisive piece, Eric. What you’re delineating is part of our existential journey: forgiving our parents for being flawed entities while simultaneously developing a new tie to them as a peer or, in the case of your dad, as the parental figure itself. You have to help to ‘parent’ him during this complicated moment and offer support to your mom as a friend and compadre. It’s hard to assume the leadership role here but Hal and you are taking it on. It marks a new stage of adulthood.

  2. How does one balance faking it until you make it with being authentic, which is the mantra of the new age? Your thoughts help with that dilemma. Identify what really matters & perfect through the noise may be some advice. Sorry about your father, who it seems has overwhelming noise from an uncontrollable direction.

    1. Thanks, Ed. I think it’s possible to fake it without being inauthentic or being dishonest. Learn from those around you and adopt their confidence. There’s nothing deeply wrong with not having a very specific answer and people respect honesty with follow up. Confidence with humility and authenticity is indeed a tough mix!

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