Most men would probably be reluctant to say that aging begins at forty. They would say, Wait! Forty is young! True, the current average life expectancy is 80, although Covid has reduced that by a few years. At 40, “I’m just getting started,” men have said to me. For my latest book—Every Breath, New Chances, a book about aging written primarily for men—I interviewed many men in their fifties and sixties, and even those men were reluctant to apply the adjective “aging” to themselves. “When I turn 70,” they said, “then I’ll be aging.”
The prospect of aging is not something we typically look forward to or like to think about, so these attitudes are understandable. But my deeper perspective on aging, influenced by my decades of Buddhist study, is that aging begins not on any particular birthday, it is just another word for being alive. We are always aging, no matter what our actual age. Strictly speaking, we begin aging the day we are born, or even before. The Buddha taught that everything is always changing, but he could also have said that everything is aging–and not just human beings. A flower ages; at the peak of its bloom, it is already going by. A car ages, so do clothes. Scientists would call this process entropy, which means that everything is in the continuous process of winding down, or dissolving. What is important about aging for us as human beings, and particularly for men, is our mental attitude about it.
When I say that aging begins at forty, I mean that forty is the age we begin to notice or think about aging more. The plumber who installed our new water heater told me, “I’m almost forty. I lift these things every day, but recently I realize that if I’m not going to hurt myself, I’m going to have to be a lot more careful of my back.” He was starting to think about the forward trajectory, where first little things (like his back) then bigger things start to go. Ten years, or even five years ago, he wouldn’t have been having those thoughts.
Women have major life-changing events like pregnancy and menopause that have profound effects on their physical and emotional states. Men’s physical changes are much more gradual. To the extent men notice aging at all, it generally focuses on two areas: sexual performance and physical prowess or athletic ability. The plumber’s job was quite physical; he had to lift 100-pound water heaters every day. He could sense his aging in the soreness of his back muscles.
During this past year, Covid has introduced a new variable into this equation. Covid has had the profound effect of introducing death into our lives in a way those now living have not seen before, although until the advent of antibiotics death was a close companion for everyone. For most of human history, death could come to otherwise healthy adults in a multitude of ways. Young men could be taken away by what today would be an otherwise trivial infection. In 19th century America, the leading cause of accidental death was horses. Cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever—the list of deadly diseases goes on. Until Covid emerged to remind us of the fragility of life, these earlier dangers seemed like just a historical curiosity.
Now it is not just an occasional need for Viagra or a mild loss of stamina while jogging that triggers aging concern, it is a news report that the new Covid delta variant is killing unvaccinated men and women in their thirties and forties. You may have a friend or relative who has either been lost or been hospitalized. That’s one way of defining aging: the time when we start to hear about or consider the realistic possibility of dying. As a 74-year-old man who has survived two life-threatening illnesses, I can say that I think about and talk about dying more than I used to—more often with each passing year.
That’s actually not a bad thing. Thinking about dying helps us appreciate living. From that point of view, for aging to begin at 40 (or whatever age you may be) means a deeper perspective, new possibilities, and indeed new chances. That is why the title of my book is Every Breath, New Chances. As a defining principle of how to be in this world, that is not a bad way to live, nor a bad way to be.
The Good Men Project gives people the insights, tools, and skills to survive, prosper and thrive in today’s changing world. A world that is changing faster than most people can keep up with that change. A world where jobs are changing, gender roles are changing, and stereotypes are being upended. A world that is growing more diverse and inclusive. A world where working towards equality will become a core competence. We’ve built a community of millions of people from around the globe who believe in this path forward. Thanks for joining The Good Men Project.
Support us on Patreon and we will support you and your writing! Tools to improve your writing and platform-building skills, a community to get you connected, and access to our editors and publisher. Your support will help us build a better, more inclusive world for all.
Photo credit: Shutterstock