50 Things I Know at 50: Reflections on a Half-Century of Life

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50 Things I Know at 50: Reflections on a Half-Century of Life

I’m turning 50 this month. As in 50 years old. As in I have finished five decades and am starting my sixth. It’s just like every other birthday except it’s halfway to 100, so it’s not like any other birthday. At all.

I thought by now I would be a) creakier b) balder c) grayer and most of all d) smarter. I thought for sure I would know what life was about at this age, but ha, no, I have only marginally more of a clue now than I did 20 years ago. Young people, don’t tell anybody I said this, but all us geezers are winging it nearly as much as you are.

My parents, teachers, professors, mentors, bosses—all the “old” people I looked up to because I thought they had life figured out—had me completely snowed. I believed they knew what they were doing, why they were doing it, what they were talking about. I thought with age came wisdom.

Nope… unless you think these 50 lessons from a 50-year-old contain wisdom.

  1. Everyone wants to know if 50 feels different. Physically, no. Mentally, yes, not least because everybody and their brother keeps asking me. This is a big number, so of course I’m thinking big thoughts. What have I done with my life so far is healthy only as long as it turns into, what can I do with the rest of my life.
  2. I struggle with regret. I know it’s a waste of time to look back and wish I had/had not done this or that, but sometimes I can’t help it. On my better days, I try instead to pre-engineer a lack of regret. I try to imagine future me. What kind of life does he want to look back on? That’s the kind of life I want to lead. Twenty-year-old me did nothing intentionally to create 30-year-old me. Thirty-year-old me did marginally better, and 40-year-old me did better still. Forty-five-year-old me started to figure it out, and now 50-year-old me is going to try to fill 60-, 70-, 80-, 90-, 100-year-old me with joy, wisdom, strength and perseverance. I’m trying to create a me in the future who will look back at the me of now and say, “Thanks, brother. I’m worn out, but it was worth it. Thanks for occasionally having pie for breakfast, especially.”
  3. I know more now than I used to, but I am also more aware of how much I don’t know. The more questions I ask, the more I realize there are even more questions to ask that I don’t even know of yet. When I think about it that way, I come to the incongruent conclusion that my knowledge related to available knowledge is actually decreasing and will continue doing so forever.
  4. Related: I am never as right as I think I am.
  5.  This is not to say I’m regressing. I suppose because of experience I won’t stick my honey-covered face into a nest full of murder hornets again. That’s not so much progress as it is stopping screwing up, and thank heaven for small victories. But I also know there’s always a chance my face will be covered with the equivalent of honey while I stick it into a metaphorical nest full of murder hornets and I’ll be whatever that version of stung is 100 times before I even know I’m in there.
  6. Life would be boring if it was easy.
  7. When I die and give my body back to God, I want Him to say, what did you do to this thing?
  8. I want to bring to Him a soul full to overflowing because of the relationships and experiences I have had. I want joy to be spilling over the side of my soul bucket like ice cream melting over the side of a cone.
  9. There are a million things I wish I knew when I was younger. Maybe No. 1 is that pursuing hard things brings joy. No. 26: Shrimp and grits should be eaten as frequently as possible.
  10. If you tell me you’re not ready for Hard Thing X I say do it anyway because if you wait until you’re ready you’ll never do it.
  11. I spent far too much of my life chasing easy and avoiding hard. No more.
  12. This I know to be true: Enduring one trial gives me more strength and perseverance when the next one arises.
  13. Please don’t interpret this as an unhealthy obsession with never quitting. It’s not that. It’s about enduring. There’s a difference. “Never quit” as an unyielding life motto is unsustainable.
  14. I wrestle with my ambition because it can be dangerous. If I slavishly follow my heart, it will take me places I’ll regret. But I can say this: my midlife crisis is ambitious as can be. I want to be a better and nicer version of me. That’s a never-ending cycle, too, but it’s not vicious.
  15. I don’t want better and/or nicer things. They’ll break, or get worn out, or my neighbor will get something even better or nicer and I’ll long for that instead. That’s a never-ending and vicious cycle.
  16. I love my friend Andy for many reasons. Among them is the fact he doesn’t think like I do. Twice on the morning of long hikes we took together, we went out to breakfast before hitting the trail, and he ordered pie. PIE FOR BREAKFAST. I was jealous both times.
  17. Next time we go out to breakfast before a hike, I’m ordering pie.
  18. It’s going to be chocolate, because if I’m going to eat pie for breakfast I need to love it.
  19. Corollary: Cherry pie for breakfast would completely miss the point of having pie for breakfast. (Don’t @ me, I just don’t like cherry pie.)
  20. Drive to a state you’ve never been to, find a small-town diner and tell the server, “bring me the most (name of state) item on your menu.” Eat it no matter what it is.
  21. Better yet, do that in a country you’ve never been to.
  22.  Anyone who tells you age is just a number is either young, lying, or so old they forgot how old they are.
  23.  Sandals paired with socks will never become cool, neither will what passes for your hairstyle, or really your overall aesthetic. You will just stop caring, or at least care less. Age is not an excuse to dress like a dork, but it often explains it.
  24.  Just because not caring about your aesthetic is you being authentically you, you not caring what the world thinks, you not succumbing to the changing vagaries of style and culture, your spouse will not find it attractive.
  25.  Everything in moderation.
  26.  Except love.
  27.  And generosity.
  28.  And laughter.
  29.  And especially practice moderation in having pie for breakfast.
  30.  You have better things to do with your life than learning how to fold fitted sheets.
  31. Call your parents, not because they’ll be gone one day and you’ll wish you had more time with them. Well, not JUST because of that. Call them because they are your parents and they love you and want to hear from you. Hold up, calling my dad now.
  32.  Get sweaty outside as often as you can, bare minimum once a week.
  33.  There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There is just life, and work is part of it.
  34.  Nobody looks back from the end of their life and wishes they worked more. Smarter, maybe, or more efficiently. But not more.
  35.  Embrace hard conversations. You will be stronger for it, and so will the people you have the conversations with.
  36.  I am not going to get bigger, faster, stronger, more flexible. In fact, to whatever extent I have any abilities in those areas, they are deteriorating even as I type this. But I can become kinder, more empathetic and more helpful.
  37. Be vulnerable.
  38.  Be the kind of person other people feel comfortable being vulnerable with. Eventually one of you will say, “you too?!? I thought I was the only one!” and that’s when relationship magic happens.
  39. I love the song “Time Stand Still,” by Rush. The lyricist laments he’s moving so fast he’s not enjoying what’s important in life. The line that sticks with me, now more than ever, is “freeze this moment a little bit longer.” I want my life to be full of moments worth freezing. C.S. Lewis called those moments joy, elusive glimpses that show there is more going on in the world than what our five senses tell us.
  40. Those moments almost never happen when I’m alone, and they sure as hell never happen when I’m alone in front of a screen.
  41. This is universal. Everyone wants their lives to be full of meaningful and freezable moments, transcendent experiences. Others might catch those moments through art or music or food or animals. My vehicle happens to be adventure. I feel most alive when my heart is racing, my body is covered in sweat, and my mind is wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
  42. I can hear objections now—I’m talking about slowing down and using adventure to illustrate my point. That’s a fair critique. But if I’m hiking, biking, canoeing, running, I’m never alone, and I never go faster than 15 miles per hour. We spend most of our time in conversation or absorbing the beauty of creation or, in the best of times, both.
  43. I sometimes worry that in chasing adventure I’m running away from my problems, that I’m going out into the woods and hiding under the guise of pursuing a vibrant life. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I prefer to think that I’m preparing for whatever problems life throws at me. I’m going to keep telling myself that, at least.
  44. Work less, so you can sleep more, so you can play more.
  45. Be careful about the false masks you wear. Eventually you’re going to get confused about which one you wear in what setting. Try leaving them at home.
  46. Eight years ago I concluded I needed to be tougher. When life got difficult, I got scared and curled up into a little ball afraid of what the world would throw at me next. I needed to improve my perseverance. One way I have done that is continuously walking right up to the edge my comfort zone, taking a deep breath, and taking a few more steps. As my friends have taught me to do that, so do I try to pass that along to others—my kids especially.
  47. Being a journalist has been a tremendous blessing on my life. I get paid to ask people questions about their lives, listen to their answers, and then write the story. The most important skill—the one all of us need, without exception—is listening.
  48. Never be afraid to ask for help.
  49. Carry someone who needs it.
  50. Let someone carry you when you need it.
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