Jewish Journal

When I’m 44

What should you be doing right now? At your age?

by Rabbi David Wolpe

Posted on Oct. 24, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Dante wrote about darkness midway through life's journey. I am not sure exactly what age he thought of as midway, but by most definitions hitting one's 44th birthday has got to fit.

It was shortly before that birthday that I read a poem titled "Men at Forty" by Donald Justice: "Men at forty/Learn to close softly/The doors to rooms they will not be/Coming back to."

Each stage of life has its characteristic depressions and delights. When my father gave away his library he first had to reconcile himself to admitting that he would never open all those books again. He kept a core few that he really loved. But it fit the stage of life; he is happy in his office with his complement of essential books. Now when I pull one of his books off my shelves, I wonder if I will ever really read it. At what point should the whittling away begin?

All of us feel the renunciation demanded by age. Each time of life forces a forswearing of one or another dream. We will not be baseball players, actresses, fashion designers, scholars, rich, famous. Listen closely and you can hear the doors closing with a gentle, final thud. I'll climb Everest. Thud. Learn French. Thud. It is never too late -- I might still compose for Broadway. Thud.

What should you be doing right now? At your age?

Different traditions offer different ideas about what we should be doing at each stage of life. The Talmud has a scheme: at 5, one begins reading the Bible, then on to the Mishna and the Talmud. By this reckoning, boys should marry at 18 (younger for girls) and gain employment at 20. By 60, one is an elder, and -- encouragingly -- at 80 is a new age of gevurah (renewed strength).

Many other schemes exist alongside the talmudic one. Confucius set his heart on learning at 15. At 40, he said, he was no longer perplexed. By 70 (at last!) he could follow the dictates of his own heart -- for what he wanted "no longer overstepped the boundaries of right."

The ancient Greek lawgiver Solon has a scheme of maturation as well, although much of it is physical -- at 7 one gets milk teeth; 14-21 a beard grows in for a man; at 28-35 one thinks of children; 35-42 one starts to consider virtue; and "tongue and mind" are best from 42-56. In his outline, less optimistic than the Talmud, 63-70 is the final installment.

Shakespeare offers a developmental path: at first an infant "mewling and puking in the nurse's arms" then the schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, the justice and on. Finally Shakespeare projects a "second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

In our own day, Erik Erikson's life is the most famous recast of the ages. Erikson focuses less on the activity of life than the internal gauges. We move from the basic trust and mistrust through the stages of autonomy versus shame and doubt; initiative versus guilt; industry versus inferiority; identity versus role confusion; intimacy versus isolation; generativity versus stagnation; and finally, if we live long enough and have moved meaningfully through life, ego integrity versus despair. By casting each of these as alternatives, Erikson, as with all the thinkers above, does not mean to suggest neat boundaries. It is life; everything is messy.

We are accustomed to hearing that life is a journey, but there are fewer clearly identified signposts along the way than we might hope. Life refuses to conform to the development schemes of sages: we might get the lucky job break early or late; our parents may die when we are young or old; we may be sick or well, blessed with children or not. Having a great life plan is admirable; life does not always cooperate.

But we can interpret our struggles against the background of those who teach that our struggles are to be expected and an essential part of the journey. The Greeks said of Plato that whatever road of life you walk down, you find him on the way back. When the Talmud teaches that the age of 40 is for understanding and the age of 50 is for counsel, our befuddlement in our 20s and 30s takes on a different cast. We aren't supposed to be there yet.

No single scheme will fit all lives. But everything about the ancient world seems different from our own, except for human nature. Change the names, the Latin proverb says, and the story is about you. As we begin the Torah again, once more we are reading about ourselves in the struggles between siblings, between generations, in the discoveries and discouragements of our ancestors.

So at 44, or whatever your stage, good luck. You may still surprise yourself. After all, Grandma Moses began painting in her 80s. I know, because I have a book about it I haven't read -- yet.

David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

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