Middle age happens when you least expect it, even if you know it is coming or not. The sneaky bastard caught me by surprise, laughed at me one evening after a game of softball as I stumbled half bent over into the bathroom and popped half a bottle of Advil, guffawed in my ear as I looked in the full length mirror with the ‘Oh crap who is that?’ look on my face. There is that moment when a man turns the corner, comes head on with reality. All of a sudden you realize that you are there. Really the only honorable choice is to look at the revelation with honesty, celebrate the positives rather than cry over the perceived losses, live as you always have. For me, there is no option to buy the fast red sports car or try to find a way to make myself physically attractive through the magic of modern surgery. Good thing. Acceptance comes slowly but sooner or later the only wise choice is to do just that.
I felt the rush of panic, closed the bathroom door behind me, leaned on the counter as I studied the man who stood before me in the mirror, a man I did not know but recognized. My back complained as I leaned in closer to observe my thinning hairline, receded enough that I no longer use a brush or comb, simply run my fingers through what is left so it all points the same direction, a blessing more than a curse as every male in my family has had to deal with the curse of hair loss. Mine has held on for dear life much longer than previous generations of Henry men, enough that I feel buoyed by good hair fortune instead of lamenting the loss. At one time in my life full curly locks spilled over my shoulders, a rocking mullet that invoked a warning from my chrome domed father every time he saw me, a warning to enjoy it while I could. I did enjoy it in the moment knowing full well the truth in my father’s warning. Those words rung in my memory as I turned away from the bathroom mirror, pulled the shower faucet knob to the left and watched the water pour from the shower head, steam beginning to rise as hot water began to come out. There was no need to look at myself in the mirror any more, even as I removed my clothes to gingerly climb into the tub. Reality was already biting, numbing me as I leaned over to let the magic hot water roll over my aching lower back, the Advil doing its job.
I’m there. Drat.
Maybe I have been there for a while. After all, I have been driving a PT Cruiser the last eight years.
There is the consolation that at fifty two years old I can still compete athletically. Most days find me enthusiastically riding a bicycle or playing golf.
Wait. Uh oh. Softball. Bicycles. Golf. Old guy sports.
Activity has been a way of life for me, a bit of my identity, and while I don’t see my active lifestyle as my way of trying to fight against middle age, it does help me cope. One does not need to be around me much at all to know how proud I am of my physical abilities. There are few softball games where I don’t take the opportunity to tell my opponent my age as I stand on base after smoking a line drive past his ear. Yes, sneaky bastard that middle age is, I have heard his footsteps coming for some time and I have laughed a bit at him myself.
Middle age does have its perks. A lot of it has to do with experience or at least that is how people look at a middle aged guy. He has been around, he must know something, right? Little do they know. Talk to me for any amount of time and you will find out how little I have learned from experience.. or how much.
Thirty year old people seem like children to me. When did that happen? My thirtieth birthday, I felt like I had reached that milestone of old age. Now I chuckle when I hear a song that I used to sing at that time called “Turning Thirty” (Randy Stonehill):
Well, now thirty ain’t like fifteen
And it’s not like twenty-five
My back’s a little stiff
And there’re some lines around my eyes
But I’ve still got my energy
And I’ve got most of my hair
And I’m not too old to rock ‘n roll
And I’m not really scared of turning thirty, yeah yeah
Those lyrics seem silly now. When I am sixty or seventy, what I am saying right now about fifty might seem just as silly.
You know what I have been listening to as I write this morning? My Electric Light Orchestra internet radio station – Suzy Quatro, Yes, Sweet, Boz Scaggs, Journey, Earth Wind and Fire, Doobie Brothers, Queen. Oh crap. I AM old. When did that music become oldies?
Dwelling on the physical part of becoming middle aged is the easy part. Talking about the physical changes, the aches and pains, the hair loss, the hair gain, even my favorite music reaching oldies status, is pretty easy because all that is what I expected to happen. All of those things are what we all anticipate even with a bit of pleasure. A part of me looked forward to getting older. To some that may seem odd to say, but there are plenty more who understand exactly what I am saying. There is a certain pleasure in getting older, a freedom of sorts. Some of the mystery of life is gone, replaced by reality, perhaps a result of taking enough bites of the knowledge of good and evil fruit. No, I am not able to stop there.
What makes middle age difficult for me is expectations. I am at that point in my life where I realize that life is just not what I expected it to be. When I looked in the bathroom mirror that night, there was more exposed to me than just the obvious physical changes. My life should be a whole lot more different than it is. Life should not be a struggle. It should be in order. By this point, I should have moved towards that comfortable place. The company that I have given twenty four years to should be paying me like I have given them twenty four hard years. It doesn’t. A year from now, my company will pay me lip service at my 25th anniversary but it will not reward me. My wife will tell me what I already know, that I have accepted mediocrity, ironic really because looking at her is a true indication of what I have accepted. What has seemed like patience may not be patience. The relationship that should be the most significant to me, my marriage, is really where those expectations have fallen short, have failed to meet even the most remote expectations. And that my friends, is what makes a man feel old.
As the steaming hot water poured over me and soothed my aching middle aged back, my thoughts turned to just that, a marriage that I want to change but can not. I expected the intimacy of marriage, not necessarily the sex, but the closeness and bond that knowing each other brings, to have brought me closer to the one I had chosen and that God chose for me. We were supposed to be one from the beginning after all. The familiarity of my wife was going to make her more beautiful to me as our bodies aged, the changes subtle and unnoticed as we stayed together in intimacy. My wife was going to be the one I cherish as we move into middle age together, into old age.
Instead the lack of intimacy has made her the one I despise. Intimacy has become a distant memory. What washed over me with that hot water brought the reality of middle age to me was the thought that I am not ready to accept that intimacy will never again be a part of my life. A bitterness, a hatred, began to over take me for the woman who has taken that hope away from me. It has been so long that I do not want her, will never want her again. She has grown so far from away from me that I want her to just keep going away. That is not, was not, my expectation.
I am a Christian, after all. Is that what God intended?
Yesterday, a footnote in my Bible led me back to I Corinthians 7, a part in Paul’s letter where he talks about marriage. It is important, at least to me, to say the footnote did not lead me there because I was not looking to read about marriage. Not at all. My devotions yesterday morning, our study looking at the question of Satan’s fall, turning to the spiritual battle that comes from that fall. The irony of that spiritual battle in regards to marriage does not escape me, nor did it escape Paul. I have read I Corinthians 7 many times in my life, focused on Paul saying “It is good for a man not to marry… I wish that all men were as I am… it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am”, thinking more about what Paul says about a single man or woman being able to devote themselves to God without the concerns of marriage. But as I read his words again yesterday, even going back and reading the end of chapter six, Paul’s words gave me a whole different message. He wrote his letter to people who were asking him to address the questions they were struggling with in regards to marriage. Paul was not preaching a sermon, he was answering a letter from people with the same kinds of questions that I am asking myself, people who lived in a place not a whole lot different than the place I live in now, a very immoral place with temptations that made marriage a very necessary safeguard – “..since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband”.
Paul recognized that God makes us as spiritual creatures who require intimacy, including sexual intimacy. He warns those married “do not deprive each other”. Why? “..come together..so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self control”. Yes. Paul was a man, he had been to Corinth, and he knew that a man who can’t get no satisfaction was going to find it there.
By the way, Paul was the master of his domain.
“Everything is permissible for me – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me – but I will not be mastered by anything.”… “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
Paul goes further to tell us that sexual sin is different from other sins, with other sins being outside of the body, but sexual sin being against one’s own body. Ask anyone who wants is in Christ and they will tell you how real that is to them when they allow themselves to be taken by sexual temptation. The spiritual separation is very real. Satan will use that. The people Paul wrote to were very aware of that and needed real encouragement from Paul.
So do I. A wife has the ability to take her husband to heaven in more way than one. Or she can help lead him straight to hell. Making sure she takes care of her husband is something a marriage needs. Don’t take my word for it. Paul said it. He also said it takes two, by the way. I am not ignoring that. Paul does not say “hey wife, don’t make you husband take cold showers”. He says do not deprive each other.
I thought it was a bit funny that my study Bible included this footnote for I Corinthians 7:5 –
“Do not deprive each other. Of sexual fulfillment. Satan…not tempt you because of your lack of self control. The Christian deprived of normal sexual activity with his or her marriage partner may be tempted by Satan to sexual immorality. The normal God-given sexual drive in the human being is strong.”
Boy do I know that. When the thought struck me that as a middle aged man I may not be having sex any more, the possibility of that part of my life being over, let’s just say bells and whistles were already going off. Just because I am older does not mean the opportunities do not exist. While I am not going to go out looking for sex, am not going to take advantage of what is easily available to me, I could have it if I want it. There are plenty of people who reach middle age that are asking the same question I am, have decided they are not going to let that part of their life be over, and have made the decision to look outside of marriage. A guy like me who has no problem talking to pretty much anyone, has run across that more often than I should probably admit. My wife should know that, does know that from the number of our friends who have gone off their rocker and had affairs on their husband. For some reason, it has not clicked with her. It should have a long time ago. I wish it had. I really do. Maybe if it had, I would still be able to say that I am attracted to her, that if she wanted to do something about the whole depriving your marriage partner, we could.
We can’t. And I never expected that to happen. Never, ever, until it did.
Age really is just a number. Middle age is just that, but what it does to how we look at ourselves is different than any of those numbers. We look back, we assess, we wonder if we should change. We realize that the age number is a whole lot smaller looking up than it is looking down.
A friend of mine told me recently that she really didn’t start living until she decided to change her life.
Is that what being middle aged is about? Change?
I may never know.