"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
Research shows the midlife crisis is largely fiction. People in their 20s and 30s are more likely to experience the kind of "crisis" associated with middle age. Only an estimated 10% of middle-aged people have the classic midlife crisis.
Researchers have found no evidence of the so-called empty nest syndrome. Many parents relish and enjoy the transition, taking pride in the fact that all their child-rearing efforts have paid off, and their offspring are on the road to accomplishing their goals.
Men don't abandon their middle-aged partners for younger trophy wives as the stereotype suggests. Most marriages break up in the first eight years. The recent rise in divorce among the middle-aged is because second unions are breaking up (usually within the first eight years of marriage).
Hot flashes aside, nearly 62% of women in one survey said they felt "only relief" when their periods stopped, while fewer than 2% said they felt "only regret."
Despite the latest hype about testosterone supplements, low sex drive, depression and sagging energy levels were more likely to be caused by stress, poor eating habits and laziness in midlife than lower hormone levels. Meanwhile, many researchers think that warnings about female sexual dysfunction in middle age are highly exaggerated. What may account for women's flagging sexual life is that they are less likely to have a regular partner than men.
It turns out age really is about attitude: Research has found that believing that you can improve your health in middle age actually improves it. A sense of control in midlife can dramatically reduce disability and preserve one's health and independence later in life.
The truth is just the opposite: Many people view midlife as their happiest period. Several surveys have found that while happiness dips in the 40s, people start to feel more content with life after the age of 50.
Follow Amy Ruhlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AmyRuhlin