On being ... a work in progress

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve never been particularly coy about my age. But, for the past month or so I’ve been debating about whether I’d write a column about turning 50. I don’t think I was in denial about it, but I did worry about shattering the picture some readers might have of me as a nubile, Victoria’s Secret model type. But, given that my age is likely to come up in news stories when I win the Pulitzer, I may as well admit here that I first graced the stage in February 1960.

Actually, the main reason I didn’t think I’d write about turning 50 is because I don’t want to be one of those people who write about a fairly common experiences as though they’re the first person to have ever gone through it. You know the stuff I’m talking about -- books and articles by baby-boomers about things like becoming a parent or trying to balance family and work. Those books always seem full of recriminations and outrage that “no one ever told us about this…”. The way I see it, our parents’ generation didn’t write about such things because they weren’t nearly as self-absorbed as we are AND because they were too busy catering to us!

Anyway, I decided to write about it, in large part, because one of the biggest surprises about turning 50 is how much of a non-event it is. Don’t get me wrong, thanks to family and friends who went all-out, I had a wonderful long weekend of celebrating. But, the actual fact of being 50 doesn’t seem like a big deal. Given my general risk-averse nature and my good fortune of having good health, turning 50 isn’t really much of an accomplishment.

Mind you, just because I don’t feel any different days after turning 50 doesn’t mean I feel I’m the same person I was at, say, 40. (There’s no point in comparing how one felt at 18, 25, or in even in your 30s -- it goes without saying that because of biology alone my 50-year-old self is different.) If anything, turning 50 has gotten me thinking about how subtle and incremental the changes are -- and yet, when taken as a whole, the differences in who I am now and who I used to be are quite remarkable.

For example, awareness of being older than famous people really used to trip me up. I’m not talking about the realization that you’re old enough to be some Olympic athlete’s mother. I’m talking about realizing you’re older than some legend or world leader. I’ll never forget how weirded out I was when I found out in 2001 that Cal Ripkin (the Iron Man of baseball) is six months younger than me. But, looking back on it, it’s clear that shocking revelation helped prepare me for the inevitable -- being older than the President! Now I pretty much assume I’m older than most people in the news.

I find I’m also way less fixated on how much money some of my contemporaries make. At some point I finally stopped comparing myself to people whose salaries, bonuses and perks are the subject of articles in the business section of the paper. It took me a long time to realize that the obscenely high salaries constantly reported on represent the outliers, not the norm. And, more importantly, somewhere along the way to 50 I realized that salary shouldn’t be confused with self-worth.

I also know a lot more about friendship. When you’re young, friendships seem to come easy: you’re thrown together through circumstance (classes and activities) and if the same things make you giggle, you’re pretty much friends. It wasn’t until my 30s and 40s that a few particularly special people helped me see the attributes I truly value in a friend -- qualities I now try to bring to my friendships with others.

At some point I realized that being fiercely independent doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people help you. I’ve finally learned that when people offer to help, it isn’t necessarily because they think I can’t get by on my own. Indeed, I now see accepting someone’s help as a way of honouring them.

And I’ve become more self-aware, especially when it comes to the many ways and times I’m overly critical -- of myself and others. Though I’d like to say that at 50 I’ve stopped being so critical, that would be a lie. But, I’ve gotten much better at recognizing when my critical nature takes over and I’ve learned to rein it in and to focus my energy on cultivating equanimity instead. Admittedly, I’ve not mastered equanimity but, more-and-more, I find myself consciously striving toward it and feeling the rewards of it.

And, though it may sound obvious, the biggest difference is that I’ve come to realize that life is a work in progress. At 18 I thought I was fully formed. I was oh-so grown up -- sure of myself, my abilities, and my path. But, in my 20s and 30s, as I made my way head-first down that path, if something happened that seemed to send me off course, I used to re-double my efforts to get be back on that course. Thankfully, over time I realized such effort is often both emotionally draining and pointless, as life has a way of unfolding as it sees fit.

I guess the best thing about being this age is that I’ve learned to not only accept course corrections, but to greet them for what they are: new adventures. So, I have to say -- I’m looking forward to the next 50!

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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