Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
While in a Judaic crafts store a few weeks ago, my wife and I were intrigued by a framed print which bears an inscription from a famous book of Jewish wisdom: “The age of forty is an age of understanding.” The comment is taken from a passage authored by Judah ben Tema, an ancient Jewish sage who lived in ancient Roman Palestine. In it, he outlines his view of the most important achievements toward which a person should strive at each stage of life, from five to a hundred years of age. Because we are turning forty this year and because the print has a unique style, it resonated strongly with us in a way that other pieces in the shop did not. Since buying it and hanging it on a wall of our home, I have been fascinated by the artist’s interpretation of what this bit of wisdom means. Below his very fancy lettering of the quote in Hebrew and English, he has placed a version of Vitruvian Man, a man’s body that is drawn with great mathematical precision and symmetry. It is laid out in such a way that you get the impression that the body parts, the arms and legs especially, are moving. Many such pictures exist, the most famous being those of Leonardo Da Vinci. Their focus on the mathematical dimensions of the body as an example of symmetry and perfect form are based upon the writings of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman era architect whose ideas about architecture dominated Europe until the Italian Renaissance. The artist of our print used a version that has the signs of the Zodiac surrounding it in a circle. The zodiac signs are drawn twice, paralleling each other on both sides of the circle as mirror images, complementing the way that the two sides of the man’s body mirror each other. One side of the circle is a rubbing onto a piece of dull gray sheet metal which contrasts with the lighter colors of the drawing paper on the other side.
I have thought a lot about how I would interpret the artist’s rendition of Judah ben Tema’s statement. The word for understanding in Hebrew is binah, which can also be translated as discernment, the ability to distinguish one thing from another with wisdom. The man in the drawing is presented in light and dark colors: at forty we are hopefully wiser about the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, and the brighter and darker sides of who we are. Metal and paper divide the drawing in half: at forty, our relationships and perspectives on life have hopefully achieved some balance between a harder, stricter insistence upon justice and a more compassionate and flexible acceptance of life’s imperfections. The inner circle of the drawing contains the picture of a man: flesh and blood moving freely through the world. The outer circle contains the zodiac signs, those tools of ancient astrology which understood human affairs as a matter of divine fate which could be predicted by reading the stars: at forty, we are hopefully better equipped to know the difference between the things that are fully within our power and responsibility to change, and the things which are truly out of our hands. All of these artistic symbols are visually balanced and symmetrical, perhaps reflecting the ideal human life of physical, emotional, and spiritual wholeness toward which we strive at age forty.
I am saddened that this perspective on turning forty is not exactly shared by the culture at large. Since the time that I turned thirty nine, I have been introduced to the anxious American preoccupation with getting “over the hill,” along with its silly theme parties and even sillier gag gifts such as false teeth, adult diapers, and toy coffins. People have begun asking me half serious questions about what it’s like to be nearing old age, implying that I am supposed to be feeling cursed or that I am in premature decay. I am not in denial about the gradual effects of aging upon my body: I am certainly slower, grayer, and heavier than I was at eighteen or even at thirty. I am just uncomfortable with the pejorative assumptions about aging that seem to underlie the “turning-forty-over-the hill” phenomenon among Americans. Our society, which obsesses about the physical perfection and sexual prowess associated with youth, still does not know what to do with growing older. This is despite the fact that we are blessed with healthy longevity and that our older population, that is growing, has become a powerful political and cultural force with which to be reckoned.
I was fortunate to have acquired a different perspective about aging when I was growing up. My father has worked in the nursing home business since the time that I was a small child. He would bring me to the nursing homes in which he worked to meet the residents who lived there, many of whom were very old, weak, and sick. Yet many were also very humorous, wise, and mentally alive. My parents taught my siblings and me to look past older people’s physical appearances and disabilities that could be scary at times to a kid, and to discover the incredible human beings that they are from within. I have internalized these values as I have matured, and they inform the way that I think about my own life. The way that I see it, getting older has not led me over the hill so much as it has helped me to approach life’s summit from where I can see and discern reality a bit more clearly.
From that summit I am forced to acknowledge that as much as the rituals and myths of turning forty can be misguided or ageist, they nonetheless play a role in helping us to confront our mortality. Because we are blessed with average ages of between 76 and 80 in America, we are well aware that forty is roughly the midpoint between birth and death. For all that forty is a time for reveling joyously in wisdom and maturity it is also a time for being terrified: we are passing from, roughly, the first half of our lives into the last half, with death awaiting us at the end. As tacky and offensive as some of them may be, the preoccupations and ceremonies of turning forty are like all rituals. They seek to organize and give coherence to our experiences in times of chaos, crisis, and transition. To paraphrase my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, they are threshold rituals that allow us to pass from our first forty years into the next by helping us to confront these changes in our lives with a defiant sort of humor that accepts mortality yet also reaffirms the joy of being alive.
Recently, two dear friends of mine turned forty, and this essay is in their honor. Both of them are fine human beings. One of them is raising five boys, and the other is raising three girls with their respective spouses. These accomplishments alone at age forty should earn them the right to share the Nobel Peace Prize! Their lives are not perfect nor have they experienced uninterrupted joy. Yet they have taken the raw material of life given to us at birth and they have shaped it, each in her own way, into something sacred and meaningful.
And so, hats off to my two friends. Hats off to all forties and forty somethings and almost forties who are meeting life’s challenges and celebrating their big birthdays. My advice to all of us: let’s celebrate and be grateful. We have made it to a time and a quality of life that plenty of needy people in the world may not ever attain. As we climb over that big hill and begin the gradual descent into that valley where the shadow of death will start to grow longer, let’s take our antioxidants, check our 401k’s, and most of all, let’s stop worrying about aging. It’s going to happen to us no matter what we do and no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light. Our goal is to grow older with grace and wisdom, while finding meaning in every moment that we are here.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.