As a kid, birthdays were always exciting. It meant presents and cake and attention.
But as an adult, they’ve become something I’ve wrestled with, particularly in recent years. And especially this year.
In exactly one week, I turn 40.
And I’m dreading it.
The big 4-0 is hard for a lot of people. For me, it’s because I’ve set expectations for myself that I haven’t met and that increasingly feel unachievable.
I can’t get through my day without a to-do list. It turns out, I’ve made such a list for my life too.
At the top are the “easy” things:
- Go to college.
- Get a graduate degree.
- Become a journalist.
- Become a professor.
Done. I’ve proudly checked those boxes.
By “easy,” I don’t mean effortless.
These were grueling tasks. The last two continue to be. I mean they are endeavors that can be accomplished through hard work and brainpower. They’re controllable and, for the most part, I can detach emotionally from them.
At the foot of the list is the thing I want most: love. It’s not at the bottom because it’s least important, but because it’s the hardest.
It’s what I long for above all and at the same time, what I most fear. It has the potential to be hurtful, but if it’s right, it can be tender and unwavering.
Focusing on journalism and teaching has been less complicated, safer and thus my focus all these years. Also, I believe in those things and am passionate about them. I was OK putting romance on the backburner to reach my professional goals.
But now I’m looking at what’s not crossed off my list and I’m nervous.
I’m alone, and 40. My biggest worry is that the next four decades will be the same.
I know this is dramatic and questionable, but it’s not uncommon for our fears to become irrational.
Some days, I find myself zeroing in on the possibility of that solitary future and it sinks me. I think about the mostly straight, small town I live in and let the math remind me how slim my chances are of finding someone. I think about that unchecked box.
I have to force myself to climb out of the hole I’ve let myself fall into, and it’s a struggle.
Other days, when I feel those negative thoughts rising, I’m strong enough to stop them from coming closer.
Turning 40 is teaching me I have a choice.
First is to let go of expectation, which the Buddha says is the source of suffering.
It’s unreasonable to set a deadline for love.
The truth is that I have not been ready for her, even though I’ve yearned for her.
I’ve been distracted and scathed until now.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel said, “It’s not about finding the right person, it’s about being the right person.”
It’s taken me a long time to become the right person. Getting here has taken counseling and reflection and meditation and transformation.
It’s a good place to be, even if I stand here alone for a while longer.
I like who I’ve become. I’m excited to see how I continue to evolve in these coming decades.
And, best of all, I have something – someone – incredible to look forward to.
I’m optimistic that my person – my true love – and I are on our way to each other. I don’t know when we’ll fall into each other’s arms, and I’m letting go of any expectations of when it should happen.
All I know is that the first half of my life, although difficult at times, has been a whirlwind and an adventure. I’ve loved every minute of teaching and reporting, and each year has been marked by personal growth.
The next half of my life will be too. I’m throwing out the list and embracing the mystery.
Tracy Simmons, a longtime religion reporter, is a Washington State University scholarly assistant professor and the editor of SpokaneFāVS, a website dedicated to covering faith, ethics and values in the Spokane region.