There is a unique grief to the end of my thirties.
In many ways, this decade has been liberating and exciting. Like many people of my generation, I’ve finally hit a stride in my career that includes feeling both competent and skilled and fairly compensated for my work. I live in a home with someone I love that is much more than adequate (both the home and the human, really). I feed myself things that I like, and I wear things that I like, and I’m generally able to afford all of these things. It is not lost on me that these are all extravagant privileges for which I have immense gratitude.
What I’ve also noticed as I get older, and what I see ahead of me in the decades beyond, is a sometimes urgent state of increasing alone-ness. While there’s always lots of activity in day-today life, I’m not sure how meaningful much of it feels. Like many people, I sometimes talk about my daily obligations with a sigh of resignation rather than with excitement. As I get older, I grapple with this feeling that there are so many things that I feel I must do, but they are perhaps not the things that I might choose to be doing.
In the therapy space, both with clients and colleagues, I talk frequently with others who are having this same experience. They are desperate to be in communion with the people that spark their sparks and bring out the best in them, but, if they even know who those people are, there doesn’t seem to be enough time left at the end of the day for the communing. Their loved ones are also running their households, or paying off their debts, or raising their children, or cleaning their dirty things, or arranging their disorganized things, or, of course, heroically and tirelessly working for a better life than their parents had. Often, as in my own experience, communing is rendered impossible because the people they love are literally scattered around the globe, and hardly accessible at a moment’s notice. The simplicity of a connection that can be gained by knocking on a wall to reach the trusted person on the other side of it does not seem to exist when one is nearly forty.
It’s a feeling of isolation quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and I’m not alone in having it.
In our teenage years and our twenties, many of us spend a lot of time just hanging around one another. Resources are scarce, there’s not much to do, we certainly can’t afford home improvements or nice meals, and we are clawing our way through some job, or towards some emotional epiphany, or a personal growth experience. Many of us are actively seeking partners, and so we are purposely out in the social thick of it – learning who we like and don’t like, where we fit in and don’t, and how to be ourselves. This time is difficult in its own way, of course, but is also gloriously decadent and rich in social interactions. Connection is almost always available, and there is plenty of room for mistake-making and long conversation. While there is perhaps less security in life, emotionally, there is so much at our fingertips.
I posit that perhaps there is a bridge between these decades of life that includes both the security and success we begin to (finally) enjoy in our thirties, forties, and beyond, and the warmth and love of community and authenticity-seeking that many of us move through in our earlier years. While our culture doesn’t make this easy (it seems to love to separate us all and generally celebrates keeping to very tight and exclusive circles), I think we can muster the motivation to create something new for ourselves when we find ourselves in the dark loneliness by asking ourselves some questions. For instance: What if we decide to value our friends to the same degree that we value our spouse and children? What if we make the time to daily see our people (through a computer screen, if need be)? What if we prioritize real quality time with people that we love, by having daily conversations about who we are, what we are thinking, the mistakes that we are making, and our dreams and our fears? What if we apply the same level of intention and dedication to our community as we do our careers?
Could we create the opportunity for ourselves to have everything?
For those of you in your thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond: how do you cultivate a home, a career, and a satisfying social life? Do you find it difficult to connect with your people as the years go on? And, do you think you can have it all?