When I was a freshman in college, I took a class that covered, among other things, the way human beings measure the passing of time. One method, which in my dimmed memory was called something like “astronomical time” or “real time,” referred to measures of time that are rooted in celestial events. For example, a day is a day because that’s how long it takes the earth to revolve on its axis one time. A year is a year because that’s how long it takes the earth to travel its orbit around the sun. Long before there were people, there were days and years. Some things happen whether or not we’re paying attention.
There is another kind of time. I wish I could remember what the professor called it. Human time? Invented time? These are the measures of time that humans create. Epochs and eras, ages and empires, months and hours. Perhaps they are not quite arbitrary, but they are most certainly invented. We think that a year has to have 12 months, but it doesn’t. A day could just as easily be broken into eighteen equal parts, not 24. Some measures of time were created for our convenience. There were days and years long before we came along. It was our perhaps regrettable decision to count them.
The first kind of time is egalitarian. It measures everything equally. One of your years is the same length as one of mine. The second kind of time is subjective, egocentric. It measures meaning. Your year was a lot worse than my year. The first kind accounts for aching backs and thinning hair. The second kind makes it possible to be ashamed of them.
This isn’t about turning forty. It really isn’t. It’s about becoming older. But since forty is the older I’m becoming, it is easy to chalk it up to the arbitrary significance of the decade.
Turning forty hurts. I mean, physically. There are things I used to do without discomfort that have become oddly painful. Lying in bed, for instance. Or making the perilous transition from sitting to the standing position. In fact, forty seems to be the Age of Positions. Where once I sat, now I am in the sitting position. Lying on my belly is the prone position. I am amazed at how much thought goes into getting in and out of these positions. If I could go back in time and tell 20-year-old me that picking up a paperclip off the floor would one day require precisely calibrated movements to avoid the sensation of being stabbed in the lumbar region, I don’t think I would have believed me.
Body deterioration, it seems, is a convenient marker of the aging process. It is not the only one, of course. Aging brings many wonderful gifts. Each year is like a chronologic Balthazar bearing wisdom or money or a latent appreciation of stinky cheese. In these and many other ways, aging is additive. But in the most immediate sense, becoming older is largely measured in how often something hurts. I say this knowing full well that right now someone in his eighties is reading this while contemplating a second hip replacement and wondering if, after the operation, he’ll be quick enough to chase me down and stab me in my lumbar region.
As I’ve approached this day, I’ve begun to catalog the things I wish I’d known. What else would I tell 20-year-old me?
Enjoy your young body and make constant use of it. You will one day have to get in shape to do things that right now you can just decide to do. No, seriously. There will come a day when certain activities are simply not an option for you without several weeks notice and advanced planning. You know all those things you don’t actually do but at least you know you could do them if you wanted to? Like ride your bike from San Francisco to Santa Cruz? Or run a mile in six minutes? Well, one day you just won’t be able to do them. Not unless you hire a trainer or make a training schedule or find a training partner. Today you can do hundreds of things that tomorrow you will have to train for. And worse yet, you will really regret that you didn’t bother to do them when you could.
How on earth did you let the fact that you could do things become the excuse for not doing them? What kind of backward logic is that? Do you even know that’s what you’re doing? The truth is, your body is the least of your worries. You know all the other stuff you say you’re going to do? All the things that are so important? Why aren’t you doing them now? Yes, you have time, but not as much as you think. That screenplay idea you have? Write the damn thing! The backpacking trip? The year living in Verona? The novel, the farm, the restaurant, the company that makes clothes for kids with the picture painted upside-down? Do them! Not because you won’t have time later but because you do have time now and I promise you you’ll look back and regret that you didn’t use your time more wisely. You will regret almost nothing you do, but you will regret virtually everything you did not do.
And remember what your dad told you about waiting as long as possible before you start making decisions based on money? He was right. Hold out as long as you can. Postpone the seemingly innocuous moment when you take a job you don’t love because it pays well.
And for God’s sake, don’t let the fact that you don’t know how to do something stop you from doing it. No one is watching you as closely as you are. There is no scorecard of failures. No one is keeping track. And one day you will be 1000 times more afraid to fail than you are now. I’m begging you to start failing now so that we can get really good at it by them time we’re…forty.
And that’s just Volume One.
But today I actually turned forty. And I’m feeling kinder to myself. I’ve counted the days and years. I’ve charted the eras and chapters of my life and made meaning of them all. I could have had a different life. But I’m happy with the one I’m living. There are many things I wish I’d done. Many places I wish I’d gone. But I like what I’m doing and where I am.
I’d still like to go back and see my 20-year-old self. But I think I’d keep my mouth shut. It would be cruel to tell my younger self those things. First of all, I would never believe me. You can only truly believe your world as it is in that moment. The future is unknowable, even if someone tells you what it holds. Because the future I would share with myself is only one of a million possible futures. Nothing is inevitable. Even if the future were fixed and unalterable, revealing it to myself would be the unkindest thing I could do. Knowing what you’ll regret later makes it impossible to enjoy what you’re doing now.
Perhaps I would simply say this to myself. I cannot tell you what’s going to happen, but I can tell you that everything turns out fine. The rest you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
That seems fair. It would be too great a burden to know what’s coming. But it is surprisingly pleasant it is to have finally arrived.