Fear of Fifty
In a week and a day - Friday, May 27 - I turn 50 years old.
I have been asked by quite a few people how it “feels” to be turning 50. Despite the fact that I have gotten the question a lot, it always kind of locks me up. I usually say something like “well, it’s complicated” which is true, but also not the real answer. I don’t always give the real answer because I don’t want to scare people at the grocery store or before church. The real answer is shorter, but also a bit uncomfortable. How do I really feel about turning 50?
Fear is one of the defining emotions of my life. I don’t necessarily mean physical fear (although that does lurk in the back ground), I mean emotional fear. Existential fear. The kind of fear that comes from not knowing, from feeling out of control, from feeling like what is happening all around me is an order of magnitude larger than what I can deal with.
It’s a fear I think we all relate to.
I think about all that has happened over the last couple of years. We saw an attack on our Capital, and STILL see ongoing efforts to subvert and pervert our democracy. We saw a deadly pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans, lockdowns, an overwhelmed medical system, and the erosion of public trust. We have seen economic struggle and inflation, war in Europe, ongoing public violence, the corrosion of discourse, and even one movie star physically attack another at the Oscars of all places. It has been a time full of fear and loathing that would have made even Hunter Thompson blush.
And all that is BEFORE we even talk about the state of the planet itself, engulfed in heat waves and wildfires, rising sea levels and glacier melt. There are parts of the planet that are on the verge of being unfit for human presence. And that number will only increase. We are watching the chickens come home to roost in real time. It’s scary as hell.
And the usual things that keep me grounded and sane in times of change and fear are unstable and shifting too. I am separated from my partner of 32 years, and while we are fighting for one another, and crawling our way back to each other, it is a process that is challenging and unpredictable. We take two steps forward, three to the side, six back. It is not a straight line. Not even close. And that is hard and scary and lonely.
And in the midst of that challenging walk, we still have to navigate the poetic and the prosaic parts of co-parenting five children. We have to navigate packing lunches and making sure that the Friday folder goes back to school. We have to get prom dresses altered and hair appointments made. We have to worry about college applications and job applications and whether or not Justin has enough books about astronomy to feed his seemingly boundless interest.
We also have to navigate the care and wellness of a special needs child who lives in a group home and can’t tell us what is happening or how it feels. We have to deal with knowing that Matthew is facing the pressures of military life in an unstable world while he also limits communication with us.
Did I mention we are also gonna be grandparents? That’s a whole new world of fear and worry that I wasn’t even aware existed.
It’s all a fucking lot.
I think that we all have some version of this happening. It would be hard not to right now. The world feels chaotic. It feels chaotic because it is chaotic.. And what makes it extra challenging is that it feels like it is all live-streamed. Our social media threads are ubiquitous and have become a barrage of bad news, FOMO, the ways we aren’t measuring up, and the feeling that we should be doing more. We pressure ourselves as much as the world exerts its pressure on us.
Everything. Everywhere. All the time.
So what do we do when the only thing that we can seem to make room for is fear? How do we find happiness and peace? How do we make room for joy and trust and connection? How do we find a lasting path through to the best of each other, when the forest is so overgrown and menacing?
The Buddhist monk and writer Pema Chodron suggests that the key is in letting go of the hope that things will be okay. There is no such thing as closure. We seek the end to fear. The irony is that the harder we try to avoid fear, the more power we give it. We are clinging to something that doesn’t exist, and trying to do something that can’t be done. We think that we can solve the problem of fear, but, Chodron says, “things don’t really get solved.” She goes on to point out that things “come together and they fall apart.” And they do this again and again. “The healing,” she tells us, “comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
I have always been eager to avoid the unpleasant. I try to fast forward through things that I would rather not deal with. Avoidance is my go to move for any traumatic event or unpleasant truth that I want to avoid. I will lie to myself, lie to others, run to bad habits, cling to toxic hope, and generally do everything I can to avoid sitting alone with my trauma or bad decisions. Hard things are hard.
Fear is just about the worst feeling ever. Why the hell would I want to sit with it? Much less get to know it well enough to try and learn from it?
I am starting to realize (and it only took 50 years) that it is this constant attempt to avoid fear that is, in a real sense, driving the fear. I try, and I still struggle to let things be as they are and then find my place in them. I am working on it.
Fifty is scary. The world is scary. And I am learning to understand that this is just part of what it means to be human. Being human is complicated. It’s messy. And yes, it is scary.
And only by leaning into the scary parts of our lives can we make our world better. Only by being present to others and ourselves and naming our fear can we start to understand it. The goal is not to eliminate fear, but to embrace it. To see it as a teacher that can shape and mold us.
I am getting there. And I will keep doing that work. I hope you will too.
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THANK YOU for your support and encouragement. It means so much to me.
Be well y’all. And pay attention to what makes you scared - and why. The fear is there to teach you something important about yourself.
And keep pounding the rock.