"The highest reward for a man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it" ~John Ruskin
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night jolted by the fact that I am now 50 years old. For a brief moment, I think it's all just a big mistake, a cosmic joke, and that I am really still only 35. I seem to be able to see my former selves so clearly at 3am. There I am at 22, rushing toward my first job; at 30, clueless and having my first child; and at 45, stumbling into midlife.
I begin to wonder if I've wasted years, lost opportunities, missed beauty, missed the point. I almost move into panic when an unexpected calm arrives and I know for certain that it's all been grist for the mill; it's all really been about growth.
My own growth is what I take with me into these golden years. It is the constant that I get to keep as time passes and youth fades.
In the middle of the night, it becomes clear that I was right where I needed to be at each decade. I needed to be driven in my 20s to know how to relax at 50; to be surprised by the challenges of motherhood in my 30s, so that I could rise to the occasion and meet them; to wrestle with midlife so that I could learn to let go of one stage of life and enter another.
It's so easy, here at middle age, to begin to pine for our youth, to have regrets, to think we missed the mark, to beat up on our younger selves. While there is loss, and necessary grief for things past, maybe something bigger is also going on: maybe life is always moving us towards something and aging is that movement along a giant learning curve.
Maybe we get to learn compassion for those younger selves who were doing the best that they could and bringing us to where we are right now. Maybe 50 is a grand culmination of all of those selves who fought so hard to get here. And maybe I can wake up in the middle of the night with relief that I have made it to 50 and am not 35 anymore.
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EARLIER ON HUFF/POST50: MIDLIFE MYTHS