There are all kinds of birthdays. Some fade into memory-fog like any other day; others stand out. Some bring milestones with age related changes, removing restrictions on everything from what we can watch to what we can buy. Other birthdays enable new responsibilities like driving, voting, or drinking; some paste on category-labels such as teenager, adult, or senior citizen. These birthdays can mark changes to how we perceive ourselves, or how others perceive us.
Some birthdays are memorable in other ways; we attach significance to them or consider them differently. This month marks one of those birthdays for me – the one mandating Medicare registration. I keep hearing words from a poster I came across: “I thought growing old would take longer.” Me, too. And that got it me thinking about birthdays and the wisdom-gifts they can bring.
When I turned 30, I felt discouraged that I hadn’t accomplished all I dreamed I would by then. In hindsight, I don’t remember what those dreams were, why I thought them important, or what I failed to achieve. At the time, I felt I wasn’t doing, having, or accomplishing what I was “supposed” to be by that age, likely influenced by what friends were achieving or what I projected others expected from me.
That limited view caused me to look past the importance of what was happening in my life and the significance of entering a new decade with support, love, and bigger dreams. With the insight only time provides, I now view that birthday as beginning a decade of great joy, married to my best friend and navigating parenthood together, while honing professional skills and interests.
When I turned 40, I wasn’t discouraged about accomplishments, but thinking about what more I could do: more adventures, more titles, more stuff, more life. While reaching for more, at times, I lost my grounding about what really mattered to me and what I wanted for my life. I can now see the wisdom-gifts from that decade as a deeper understanding that who I am is not what I do, and how important it is to use life’s currency – the time we do have – well.
Turning 50 shifted my possibility antennae with a few life-dreams achieved – moving to Montana, building a wilderness cabin, turning my executive “hat” in for a self-directed second-act career more focused on giving back, becoming a published author, welcoming grandchildren, and traveling to places I never thought I would. But mixed in with that were some difficult wisdom-gifts helping me to also understand that change can be difficult, and transitions challenging, even if you want them, and real compassion requires unconditional love.
Twentieth-century humanist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm put it well when he wrote: “The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die – although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.”
In the scheme of things, I’ve come to believe that getting older is not the same as getting old, and our wisdom doesn’t increase with our wrinkles. Instead, it requires openness to unwrapping ourselves; to being “fully born.” I don’t know what wisdom-gifts I’ll find in this next decade or future ones or how challenging they’ll be to receive, but I do know they’ll bring me new insights and greater perspective. These gifts from our life are, indeed, priceless.