Halfway house

It’s my 39th birthday today.

I can’t remember when exactly, but there must have been a turning point at which birthdays stopped being a cause for celebration and started becoming a reminder of how another year had passed without fulfilling any of my big life goals.

There’s a Lily Allen song (‘22‘) out at the moment whose lyrics really resonate with me:

When she was 22 the future was bright

She’s nearly 30 now and she’s out every night […]

It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over

There’s nothing to do and there’s nothing to say

The average life expectancy for a UK male is now 77.7 years which means that, statistically at least, today my life is half over. I may live longer than that; conversely, like my friend Sam, my life could end much sooner and more abruptly than that.

When you’re younger, you feel invulnerable. The future looks bright, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, and you’re most likely at your peak health-wise. I know I felt like that; I wasn’t especially fit, but I played a lot of sport, had loads of energy, and the spectre of arthritis, cancer and a million and one physical ailments were tiny dots on a distant horizon.

Over the last two or three years, though, I’ve been reminded that this is no longer the case. While I’m not in bad health, I’ve put on a lot of weight which I can no longer easily shed. I can’t sleep on a hard floor any more – as I have done to help Isaac get back to sleep on a number of occasions recently – without waking up with backache. I’ve been diagnosed with a couple of (relatively minor) conditions which occasionally cause me slight physical problems, and four times I’ve developed what could have been early symptoms of cancer but have thankfully proven to be innocent inconveniences.

So I’m no better or worse than many men of my age; I’m hardly a paragon of virtue, I should really lose 20-30 pounds, but there are plenty of people in a worse physical condition than me. Basically I can essentially live the life I want to live the vast majority of the time; I just can’t do everything I would like to do.

Having just re-read the last few paragraphs, I sound like an aspiring Victor Meldrew, don’t I?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all unhappy. Waking up this morning to be greeted by a loving wife and a beaming son wanting to blow out the ‘dandles’ on my ‘dir-day dake’ was the best present I could possibly have asked for. But what I’ve gradually come to realise over the last few months is that I need to spend less time worrying about the day-to-day stuff, and more time concentrating on the things that actually make me happy.

There is a well-known theory developed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow called the ‘hierarchy of needs’, which serves as a model to explain human motivation. The hierarchy is usually expressed as a pyramid, with each level following on from the one below it.

Maslow postulated that as humans fulfil their needs at each successive level, their motivations shift to the next level in the hierarchy. For instance, once you have met your basic ‘physiological’ needs (e.g. a roof over your head, food and water, basic health), you move on to ‘safety’ motivations (getting a job, having a basic level of fitness etc) and so on.

What I’ve realised is that I’ve been stuck in the ‘esteem’ phase for quite a while. I suspect many professional people do: get good qualifications, get a job, get a better job, climb the greasy pole, get a pay rise, get a promotion, don’t stop until you’ve climbed as high as you can possibly go, retire.

And that’s the nub of any unhappiness I have every birthday. I’m not one of those people for whom my career is the be-all and end-all of my existence. Sure, in my twenties and early thirties it was a big focus for me, as I moved up Maslow’s hierarchy from ‘safety’ (first job) to ‘belonging’ (move jobs, get married, cover the mortgage) to ‘esteem’ (get my MBA, keep moving jobs, more disposable income). If I look at where I am now, I have a job I enjoy (most of the time, anyway), my work-life balance is pretty good, I have a young family, and I earn more than enough to pay the bills, buy stuff I want to buy and still put something away for a rainy day.

In Maslow’s terms, I’m ready to move from ‘esteem’ to ‘self-actualisation’. Or, at least, I will do if I give myself permission to do so. It’s the itch I’m desperate to scratch evey year.

It takes quite a bit of effort to put the nagging guilt to one side, though. There is constant pressure to do more at work (especially in these recessionary times). There are always bills to be paid, chores to be done, all the minutiae of everyday life. And there is always tomorrow to do everything on my aspirational wish-list. But you know what? The world doesn’t stop if I don’t do all the day-to-day stuff right now. And if I keep waiting for tomorrow, it will never come.

I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve started writing so much again recently: it’s how I am most comfortable expressing my creativity. I find the process of writing a blog relaxing and fulfilling – it’s certainly more fun than filling in yet another spreadsheet! I’ve always wanted to write a book – I’ve started and stopped twice before, paralysed by fear of failure – and yet the other night I sat up for two hours at 3am beginning the process all over again. (Third time lucky, eh?) Why not? Publication, which is more of an ‘esteem’ need, is not my goal; I write because the simple act of writing is satisfying enough in itself. Self-actualisation is the name of the game.

So, anyway, I stand here today at the theoretical halfway house of my passage on this mortal coil. Maybe I’ve wasted some opportunities already, but I still have a whole load of life left to do the things that really matter to me.

It seems like a pretty good place to be. I’ll take that. It’s certainly reason enough for me to celebrate rather than mope today.