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Turning 40

July 7, 2011 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

For my 40th birthday, I decided to dream again.

I recently turned 40.

Did I just write that? 40?

Has it really been ten years since I wrote the article Turning 30 for

My family and close friends knew. But it’s not like I went around telling the world. For some reason there’s something instinctively taboo about admitting that you’re 40.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?” asked a co-worker, trying to place my generation while we were engaging in ‘small talk.’

“I am f. . .fo. . .for. . .forty.” I just couldn’t get the words out.

Why do we have a hard time admitting that we are getting older?

George Carlin brilliantly describes the aging process:

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we're kids? If you're less than 10 years old, you're so excited about aging that you think in fractions.

"How old are you?" "I'm four and a half!" You get into your teens, now they can't hold you back. You jump to the next number ... or even a few ahead. "How old are you?" "I'm gonna be 16!" You could be 13, but hey, you're gonna be 16! And then the greatest day of your life, even the words sound like a ceremony . . . you become 21!!!

It’s all downhill from there.

You turn 30. What happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk. He turned; we had to throw him out. What’s next? Then you're pushing 40. You reach 50 and you make it to 60.

So you BECOME 21, TURN 30, PUSH 40, REACH 50 and MAKE IT to 60. You've built up so much speed that you HIT 70! After that it's a day-by-day thing; you HIT Wednesday! You get into your 80s and every day is a complete cycle; you hit lunch; you turn 4:30; you reach bedtime. And it doesn't end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards ..."I was just 92."

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again. "I'm 100 and a half!" May we all make it to a healthy 100 and a half!

Our society looks down upon people who are getting older. We engage in youth envy. That's is why there is a thriving market for anti-wrinkling creams, anti-aging 'wonder' drugs, and hair dyeing that can disguise one’s true age.

Morrie Schwartz, from Tuesdays with Morrie, provides a different attitude:

If you're always battling against getting older, you're always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyhow....It is impossible for the old not to envy the young. . .But the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that. I had my time to be in my thirties, and now is my time to be 78. You have to find what's good and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you competitive and age is not a competitive issue. . .The truth is part of me is every age. I'm a three-year-old, I'm a five-year-old, I'm a 37-year-old, and I’m a 50-year-old. I've been through all of them and I know what it's like. I delight in being a child, when it's appropriate to be a child; I delight in being a wise old man when it's appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age up to my own... How can I be envious of where you are—when I've been there myself? (Tuesdays with Morrie, pgs. 119-121)

Related Article: Turning 30

Age of Transformation

I started thinking about what it means to turn 40.

The Sages tell us that we receive the gift of binah, understanding, at age 40 (Avos 5:21). This seems to be what occurred to the great Talmudic sage, Rebbi Akiva, who completely transformed his life at age 40, going from an average and ignorant shepherd to a path which made him one of the greatest Torah scholars and righteous men who ever lived. The fact that Rebbi Akiva began his journey at age 40 can’t be coincidental. The Sages indicate here that at age 40, great transformation can and is supposed to occur.

So for my 40th birthday, I decided to take my newfound gift of understanding and apply it to my life. I decided to dream again. I wanted to feel the feelings I felt when I was 18 and life was an open book. There were so many dreams and ideals that I had about how my life would go. When I got married some years later, there were even more dreams. I would study Torah at least four hours a day and in great depth (while holding down a busy job?). I would never get into an argument with my wife (yes, a dreamer). I would never get too stern with my kids (a big dreamer).

I wanted to reconnect and experience those dreams and feelings.

The first thing I did was to run down to my old, dusty notebooks from when I was a young man in yeshiva college. I turned the pages and read the lecture notes and words I wrote 20 years ago. I re-entered that world of being a full time student. The intellectual and emotional growth I accessed in those foundational years. The feeling of sheer pleasure and spiritual growth living without too many of the pressures of life and financial worries that come with raising a family.

“When your memories exceed your dreams, the end is near.”

For my 40th birthday I resolved to grow with greater conviction, to study Torah more diligently, to be a better husband and father, to communicate with God more personally.

Although I’m entering middle age, I will never be ‘over the hill’ as long as I still feel like climbing.

Yes, I have many responsibilities and stresses in my adult life over 40, and I’ve experienced many past disappointments and failures, but I can still try to live with the idealism and vigor of youth.

There is a famous aphorism which states that “When your memories exceed your dreams, the end is near.”

When a person lives more in his past than looking forward and yearning for the fulfillment of future dreams, then the outlook for his life is not very optimistic. If he thinks he has nothing more to live for and that “the best years of his life are behind him,” his life is a sad one. Someone who is passionate about his dreams and aspirations feels he has so much more to live for. His life is infused with joy and meaning.

As long as we are still breathing, we have much to accomplish. Every day of our lives we are to be growing, developing, and improving.

As Bernard M. Baruch put it, “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

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