Why Turning 40 Is Actually Pretty Great

by Melissa Kirsch
Originally Published: 

I was 40 long before I actually turned 40.

The day I turned 36, I started seeing 40 in the distance, the way you see a car approaching from the opposite direction in a dream. You’re strangely calm, driving forward at a steady velocity, knowing you’re going to run into it. You consider swerving to get out of the way, but the unwavering compass that is your dream-brain tells you it’s OK, you are going to run into this oncoming car and you are going to be all right.

I worked with a woman once who used the fact that she was 40 as a rationale for doing whatever the hell she wanted: “I’m going to have a cocktail before noon—I’m 40 for crying out loud!” “I told the boss to go to hell—I’m 40 for crying out loud!” “I can come to work in my bathrobe! I’m 40 for the love of God!” I admired her full-on embrace of what I, still firmly residing in my thirties, saw as the gateway to old age.

I was afraid of 40 in a way I hadn’t been afraid of 30. When you’re in your twenties, you get so used to people telling you how young you are that you kind of wish for 30 so you’ll be taken a little more seriously. But 40 is undebatably adulthood. Closer to 50 than 20, you’re taken seriously whether you want to be or not. In my case, I was looking at 40 single and without kids—”I always planned to be through with my first marriage by 40,” I half-joked. Ha! My friends laughed charitably—and then retreated into their Subarus to whisper about how tragic it was that I was going to spend my golden years in a studio apartment eating tuna from the can with a plastic fork.

I held fast to 39 like it was a life raft. I watched the entirety of the TV show thirtysomething, remembering how ancient Hope and Michael had seemed when I used to record the show on VHS when I was 13, this time with the terrible refrain, “You are older than that person, you are older than that person and that person and that person” accompanying every scene. I started privately trying on the designation “middle-aged”—”Now that I’m middle-aged,” I’d begin in response to the question that the imaginary interviewer had asked me. It didn’t fit. I still felt thirtysomething. I still felt 12.

Turning 40 was a little bit terrible. I had a swell party with all my best friends, most of whom had turned 40 a few months prior, but I felt a little bit like the car coming in the other direction had hit me. Not fatally, but enough that I walked around in a fog for a week, wondering how I could have dampened the impact. Why hadn’t I done anything truly impressive yet? Why was I still trying to fit into jeans that hadn’t fit me since I was 20? Why didn’t I own any property?

But gradually, and I know this sounds kind of too perfect, the “I don’t give a shit” attitude people had sworn would accompany 40 really did begin to kick in. Why do I still care so much what people think of me? I’m 40, not everyone is going to like me! Why am I still doing that thing where my voice goes up to make myself less intimidating? I’m 40, I can speak in my actual alto voice to the Time Warner representative! Why am I wasting time with people I don’t actually like? I’m 40, and I don’t want to hang around with people who are boring or humorless or mean. I’m 40 and one day I will be 50, 60, 70, 80 if I’m lucky. If I fret over being old now, I have a lot of decades of even more intense fretting ahead of me.

I’m 40, for crying out loud! I’m not old but one day I will be, and I’ve got a lot of living to do before then. As Joseph Brodsky wrote in his birthday poem “May 24, 1980”:

“Now I am forty. What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence…Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx, only gratitude will be gushing from it.”

That’s it: gratitude. For the years I’ve had, and all the ones I have yet to experience. I’m 40. Thank you.

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