Men at Forty
by Donald Justice (1925-2004)
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.
And deep in mirrors
The face of the boy as he practices trying
His father’s tie there in secret
And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something
That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.
My friend David introduced me to this poem a few months ago after I told him I was feeling the approach of my fortieth birthday. It was a wonderful early birthday gift.
For the last six months or so, I’ve felt myself aware of a change in life stage. I was never one to put much stock in birthdays as important markers, but for some reason 40—which happens for me today—is different.
Maybe it’s because I’m finally half the age of my father, who was 40 when I was born. Or maybe it’s because my oldest son had his bar mitzvah this year, making me feel my adulthood in a new and different way. Or maybe it’s because my work life has grown to include things like hiring and supervising employees, and fundraising, and building an organization, things I associate with a next stage of age and maturity.
As I turn 40 I find myself aware of living a life of commitments and responsibilities—ones that I’ve chosen, and ones that have chosen me. And I find that at this stage, the line between how those choices were made is both increasingly blurry, and increasingly unimportant. Agency isn’t my watchword right now, so much as responsibility and commitment.
My life at this point is largely shaped by the people who depend on me, people whose presence and voice constitute my life’s music: its rhythms, pitch, and phrases; its harmonies and dissonances; its cadences and silent rests. From waking up to a toddler creeping into my bedroom in the early morning, to relationships with colleagues and coworkers and clients and supporters during the day, to phone calls and texts with my wife to check in during the afternoon, to going to my kids’ baseball teams for what seems like every evening in the springtime, to the volunteering and mentoring I squeeze in during odd moments, to listening to my beloved Detroit Tigers over the internet—the contours of my life at 40 are defined by these relationships, these presences, and I no longer know, nor really care, who chose whom.
Half my life ago, at the age of 20, I was much more concerned about agency, about purity and consistency. Life at that point allowed me to focus on myself, without a whole lot of thought about responsibilities to others. But in the past 20 years, as career and family and purpose have coalesced into an imperfect but hardy dish, the emphasis has shifted, and I find myself today anchored by the responsibilities—the people, the job, the mortgage—of Donald Justice’s poem.
Yehuda ben-Teima would say: “Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the commandments. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength, Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sagacity. Seventy, for elderliness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world. (Avot 5:22)
It’s trite to quote this Jewish teaching on a big birthday. But one only turns 40 once. And as I reflect on it, I can’t help but agree with the ancient Jewish sage: This feels like a time of understanding, a time when I can start to see the formation of wisdom down the bend. It is also a time when I begin to feel a little more restless, when my horizon shifts outward to the larger plane of community, society, nation, and when I begin to consider what my legacy might be beyond my children or those I’ve taught directly. I stand by my house at the foot of the slope, and I feel called to start the climb.
I don’t know precisely what I want the next ten years, much less the next forty, to bring. And I’m old enough to know that I have only a small part in writing that story. But as I turn 40, I find myself with greater appreciation of those things that I can steer and those things which I must allow to steer me.
Finally, I find myself filled with a feeling of gratitude for my teachers and friends and mentors and colleagues and students, and for the simple gift of being here. This has been a remarkable journey, and I pray the next forty years are as full and rich as these first forty have been.