I received an email from a high school friend recently, and he described us as “decidedly middle age”. It’s quite an apt description, although one that really makes me feel my years. Today is my 44th birthday, and I would feel fortunate to make 88. My grandparents passed when they were 76, 77, 86, and 95, which would make their average age at death about 83. My parents are both alive and relatively healthy at 74. So yes, 88 seems a good goal — there is a reasonable likelihood I will achieve it.
To think that I’m about halfway through this journey of life can be quite sobering. I have celebrated about half of my birthdays, about half of my first days of spring. I have experienced about half of my Christmases, my summer days out in the park. I have seen about half of my sunrises, smelled about half of my flowers. As my friend wrote, questions of “Now what?” and “Is this all there is?” can start to arise.
As I sit with these thoughts, and my thoughts of what ends with the finality of death, I can start to feel quite a bit of fear, anxiety, tension. And sometimes I distract myself from those feelings by looking to some happy diversion, be it electronic, auditory, culinary, or otherwise. Checking my email or social media. Watching a TV show. Having a snack. But neither distraction nor happiness is an antidote to anxiety.
Instead, what will truly counteract those feelings of anxiety is shifting my focus to grief. It may seem bizarre to counteract anxiety with grief, but this shift comes from the heart and root of those two emotions. Anxiety stems from our desire to hold on to what we have, our fear of letting go. Grief comes from a realization that, ultimately, we cannot hold on. And while anxiety is paired with happiness, grief is paired with joy…in fact, grief is the understanding that we must lose that which brings us joy.
So as I move through the midway point of my life, as I celebrate my 44th birthday, I will experience anxiety, and I will seek to distract myself with happiness and pleasures for sure. But I also want to live in what brings me joy, and acknowledge the grief I will feel in losing it.
My family brings me joy. Going for a walk with them on a beautiful spring day. My friends bring me joy. Catching up after not reaching out for months or years. Hearing the birds calling one another outside my window on a sunny morning brings me joy. Listening to a song by Toad the Wet Sprocket. Reading anything written by Edward Abbey. Laughing at something silly and nonsensical. Digging into a meaningful education discussion. Playing the trumpet with our band. Being with those I love in whatever way I can in this time of social distancing.
I love all of these things — they connect me to, not momentary happiness, but enduring joy. And I feel immeasurable grief at the thought of losing them. Those two senses are entwining together and inextricable from one another. It is this quality of inextricability, of entwiningness, in some senses of paradox, that brings meaning to this time and experience we call a life. I feel this griefjoy at having travelled 44 times around the sun, and the thought that I have about 44 more trips to experience. My wish this year is to make more moments of griefjoy with those I love.
Happy birthday to me.
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