I turned 41 yesterday. Living in a house with a seven- and a five-year old, birthdays are Big Deals. My children have an overwhelming desire to be grown up, because they perceive adulthood as an endless treasure trove of opportunities, such as the ability to eat candy for breakfast and stay up past their regularly scheduled bedtime with impunity. Now entering my fifth decade on this planet, my take is a bit different.
Last year, when I turned 40, nothing happened. As humans, I’ve noticed that we tend to get particularly excited when a bunch of numbers change (e.g., Y2K). But, I found this milestone birthday to be a let down. Where was the instantaneous respect the wisdom of my years entitled me to? Where was my definitive sense of purpose? Where was the control I supposedly now had over my life? Despite getting all new digits in the tens’ and the ones’ columns simultaneously, I felt cheated. As is true of so many things in life, purpose doesn’t come standard and control is just marketing.
Now, I have another new digit in the ones’ column. As I was turning it over in my head yesterday, I thought about the fact that 41 is a prime number, being evenly divisible only by itself and the number one. Prime is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin, primus, meaning first. In modern English, in addition to being a mathematical term, prime can represent the best quality (e.g., how we grade meat), greatest strength (e.g., “prime of life”), or highest importance (e.g., holding a “prime position” in a group). What does it mean for me, now, to be prime?
In an unprecedented move for me, I’m putting myself first, hitting pause on a career that, although intellectually fulfilling and professionally satisfying, has resulted in me putting the majority of my energy into others and, in the end, having none left for myself. One of my favorite analogies to use in mentoring is the pre-flight passenger safety briefing mandated by aviation regulators worldwide. If there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, and oxygen masks fall from the compartment above your head, they say to put on your own mask before assisting others, for good reason. At 40,000 feet above sea level, you have between seven and 10 seconds before hypoxia sets in and you lose what is known as “useful consciousness” (another one of my favorite phrases). Again and again, I remind people that a failure to take care of themselves will result in their being useless to those around them when they are most needed. Somehow, that behavior didn’t translate to my own life.
Now that I am experiencing the life equivalent of hypoxia, I’m having to learn how to place caring for myself first. I’ve always advocated for others to do it, but historically I’ve harbored my own judgment toward those who do. Buying into the notion that strength of character and depth of drive are synonymous with ascetic autonomy, I’ve single-mindedly focused on my independence at the expense of my holistic wellbeing. My experience with depression, especially this extended major depressive episode, is forcing me to confront this uncomfortable truth about myself. I have been someone who has looked down on others who prioritized their own physical and mental health, because I thought that it was a sign of weakness. Although I may have said and done the right things to support others who made this brave and mature choice, my heart and mind weren’t in it, until now. I’ve wondered if this realization is one of the factors that made deciding to take leave from my job—and moreover be transparent and candid about it—so challenging for me. Not only am I anxious about the judgment of others, I’m worried about my judgment of myself.
At 41, I’ve come to understand that significant number change birthdays mean everything and nothing. They mean everything in the sense that they provide an opportunity for true and meaningful reflection and reevaluation, if I choose to take it. The turning over of another year, another decade, is an invitation to practice mindfulness. They also mean nothing in the sense that these arbitrary integers are an invention of our, still relatively primitive, understanding of how our tiny earth functions in relation to our expansive galaxy. We are the ones who give meaning to our years. I’m still apprehensive, but I look forward to seeing what life is like when my oxygen mask is in place and I am breathing normally. It’s the best birthday present I could ask for.