A friend told me recently that his fast-approaching 50th birthday would probably be his worst and that he was just going to put his head down, get through the day and move on with his life.
I can certainly sympathise – few of us like to be reminded of the passing years as we get older, especially in our youth-obsessed society where the aim seems to be at the very least to make time stand still or even go backwards. Today, we are constantly told that "50 is the new 40", or in the case of celebrity Kelly Preston, the wife of John Travolta, "the new 25": "I feel incredible," the mother of three, including a two-year-old, gushed to People magazine, "You are as old as you feel and I feel like I'm 25!"
Mixed messages abound. Either we're being reassured there is nothing to fear about turning 50 – so long as we follow the myriad of beauty, fashion, diet and exercise tips on offer – or we're being bombarded with advice on how to cope in our 50s and 60s, decades that have been likened to the Bermuda Triangle: if you manage to pass through relatively unscathed, you'll be fine.
To quote Huffington Post blogger Sharon Greenthal: "Don't dwell on the things that didn't happen, the opportunities missed, the loved ones gone, the friends at a distance. Forget the money that you've lost or the journey not taken." Journalist Linda Lowen sounds an even gloomier warning: "After turning 50, nearly all of us are closer to death than birth". Thanks Sharon and Linda, now I feel really depressed!
On the other hand, by the time we reach 50, we're meant to be wise and experienced, with plenty of knowledge to impart to others. Indeed, ancient wisdom teaches that 40 is when we attain understanding, 50 when we can offer advice, and 60 when we finally reach seniority (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:24).
While I certainly haven't waited to turn 50 to proffer advice to anyone who will listen, I don't necessarily feel wiser than the next person. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, "Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes". And I, like everyone else, have made plenty of them. Sure, life has taught me lessons I can share, but I'm often wrong and am not afraid to say so, learn from it and move on.
Some people drift through life, carried along by circumstance or, for those seemingly fortunate few, by sheer whim. Apparently content and relaxed, they don't look as if they are stirred by guilt and give the impression, at least, of effortlessly remaining in the moment, confident about, and at peace with, who they are and what they have or haven't achieved so far… Or perhaps they just haven't given much thought to the big picture.
I've often wished that I could be more like them – surely life would be so much easier!
"Blessed" with a driven personality, I need to have a purpose almost all of the time in order to feel good about myself. I still strive to learn something new every day and am constantly motivated to succeed at whatever task I've set myself, analysing and questioning the value of my work.
After all, we only have relatively few short years on this earth, so am I doing the very best I can? What else should I be doing before it's too late?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average retirement age for women is around 50! But as a member of the "sandwich generation", who is still juggling the care of young children and elderly parents with work and volunteering opportunities, I'm no where near ready to retire, and at least at this stage, don't think I ever will be … although I certainly would love more time to travel.
I suppose much of the blame for this personality trait and attitude to life can be sheeted home to my parents and grandfather, who have had such a huge influence on me. They encouraged me to strive for excellence – as distinct from perfection – and had high expectations of both themselves and those they loved, always remaining true to their principles. They taught me to be humble and ethical, encouraging me to think for myself and stand up for what I believe in.
In short, they raised me to trust I could do anything I set my mind to and urged me to find an interest in life that would sustain me. As my mother once wrote to me: "Life has a lot to offer. One must, however, know how to cherish it and to make the most of the opportunities offered."
My grandfather put it this way: "The world becomes a universe full of puzzles and its secrets a life full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for its hidden mysteries."
Surely then what truly matters is not how many years have passed, which after all is beyond our control, but what we do with each day, or as my friend put it, "getting on with life".
So instead of feeling like I'm staring down the barrel of turning 50 next birthday, I'm going to try and emulate the attitude Abraham Lincoln displayed when he commented so eloquently: "And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." Now there's a man who probably wouldn't have turned a hair at the prospect of growing older if he'd been given the chance!
We may not always succeed, but like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of those giants who lived before us, we can strive to understand and build on the past, continuing to contribute creatively, derive meaning and purpose and hopefully help to make the world a better place for future generations.
That, after all, is our legacy.