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Elan Vitae


  • Paige Nolan


When I was a child, I thought I would know everything by age 40. I thought my life would be settled and I would be successful and finally, at peace. No more questions.  (*I’ve always had so many questions about life.)

I remember my father’s 40th birthday. It was a surprise party in our home, where our extended family and neighbors and dad’s work colleagues gathered to celebrate this monumental “over the hill” moment. The theme was fishing, my father’s favorite pastime, and my mom filled up a canoe with ice and beer in the backyard. Even though my dad never fished out of a canoe, it was a nice touch and got the theme across. The year was 1984. My mom had neon yellow stickers printed that read: BOB NOLAN IS 40 YEARS OLD in dark black ink. My friends and I were charged with perusing the neighborhood and affixing these stickers to street signs, road signs and car bumpers. The task felt unlawful and exciting. I remember feeling very proud when I saw those neon stickers weeks and even months after the party, still fully sticking to the cars and signs I had chosen. I also remember my dad being very happy that night – our home full of revelry and laughter. He looked like a person who knew it all – he was settled in his family life, successful in his career – and as far as my ten year old eyes could see, at peace.

Needless to say, as I grew more mature and perceptive, I came to understand the truth of 40 years old is not a place of all-knowing-contentedness – but still, this early impression of my dad’s life at age 40 (and my mom’s life, too) left an indelible mark. I expected my own 40th birthday to be similar to my father’s.

On the outside, it was – similar enough. My husband threw me a dinner party at our home in the suburbs; we invited our neighbors and friends who are like family. It was a night full of revelry and laughter.

On the inside, I was full of questions.

I showed up to my therapist’s office the next week for a much needed planned session. As I sat on the couch waiting for him to buzz me through the entrance door, I heard the exit door close on the other side.

When the red light sounded, I opened the office door and made myself at home as I had been working with my therapist, Greg, for over a year at that point.

“I heard the exit door close,” I tell him, as I get comfortable on his couch, notebook ready. “What was that client here to talk about?”

This is a question I wasn’t even planning on asking but it comes out because I am overflowing with questions and there is nowhere else for it to go.

“She’s 95 years old. Her husband recently died. She is struggling to feel useful…”

My hands instinctively press against my forehead when I collapse against the pillows. “I’m still going to be in therapy when I’m 95 years old?!?!”

“If you need therapy when you’re 95 years old, you can chose to go to therapy,” Greg says evenly like the therapist he is.

“C’mon! That’s so exhausting to think about.” Greg laughs.

“No. I don’t want to keep seeking,” I tell him. “I thought you reached a point where you were like…done…fully developed, you know? Am I ever going to feel like I figured it out?”

“I hope not,” he says.

“Does it get easier?” I ask.

“You keep getting to know yourself – you get better at responding to your experience…you take responsibility for your life. And that means you’re able to respond. You get rattled but your rate of recovery is faster.”

That’s what we worked on for another 2 years together – my ability to respond, my rate of recovery, my understanding of my own values and vulnerabilities.

And in that time, I discovered where I had it all wrong. I thought growing up meant you outgrew confusion and disappointment and failure and hurt and insecurity – I thought there was an age we could reach where we know enough about being human that these things wouldn’t trip us up as much as they do when we are younger. I thought there was a point where one could be above the pain.

But growing up doesn't mean growing above and beyond the hard parts, it means growing in awareness – to the totality of it all.

In that therapy session, in that conversation with Greg, with the image of a 95 year old woman shuffling down the hallway as I am exasperated on the couch pillow with the idea of myself one day shuffling down the hallway after a therapy session I thought I wouldn’t need but choose to take – a light of awareness switched on inside of me.

In the years that have followed, this light has grown stronger. And I have learned how to sustain its glow.

The less I judge my experience, the brighter the light can shine. The more open I am to outcome, unexpected outcomes – outrageous outcomes – forgettable outcomes, the greater the capacity this light has to illuminate my truth.

And as Greg predicted, I have grown closer to who I am. I have gotten better at taking responsibility for my life. I am able to respond to my experiences exactly because I am more aware of my values and my vulnerabilities – because I look at them. I see them in the light and I experience them reflected back to me in every single on of my relationships.

I turned 49 years old a few months ago and I don’t have life all figured out. Though, these days, that doesn’t bother me. I don’t need or want to have life figured out.

I do need to shine a light on my lessons – and when I see them clearly for what they are, I keep them in the light of my awareness so that they can serve my growth. I am getting better at growing. Because when the light touches my questions, they turn into curiosities – and rather than being afraid of what I will find, I am enlivened by the possibility of what’s to come.

I know why Greg said he hoped I wouldn’t figure it all out – because when you believe you’ve figured it all out, you stop discovering. You close yourself off to learning. And parts of your life experience get stuck in the shadows. Growing through our lived experience is the great hope of our lives. Being alive in the light of awareness is the gift of aging – living in this light is where we can settle, know our own success, recover from our failure, sit with the uncertainty and finally find ourselves, even momentarily, at peace.


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