40. The Big Four–Oh. The midlife milestone. If we compressed a lifetime into a single week, turning 40 would be life’s Wednesday — humanity’s great middle measurement.
Since nearly everyone alive at 39 will muddle on to 40, and since nearly everyone reading this will make it to 39, or already has, then a bit of thought is worth our while on this important occasion in the lives of so many. (Besides, my wife recently celebrated her 40th year on the planet, and so this 38-year-old had to do some advanced analysis on such a vaunted event, so let’s see what I came up with.)
Why do we worry so much about turning 40? What makes us nuts about that particular age?
For starters, I think it’s that 40 is a neat number. Far cooler than “39” or “41.” It’s even. It’s clean. And when said out loud, it’s got a nice, solid sound to it.
Even more than that, there’s the superficial aspect. And that’s what we tend to focus on. The stuff we can see. Hair: for men it invades where it never was and should never be; for women it starts to lose some quality that was once a given. Skin: not as taut. Eyes: hello, reading glasses! By 40, our physicality has taken something of a beating. And so in a screen-addled, selfie-snapping visual culture that too often values appearance over everything — we obsess over the physical part of turning 40.
But we mislead ourselves.
There is no beauty cliff that we fall off the precise day we turn 40. It’s not as if at age 39, 11 months, and 30 days, we’re irresistible Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie look-alikes—and then the sun goes down, and we wake-up transformed into giant, hairy stunt doubles for Hagrid from “Harry Potter.” It’s more gradual. Our looks evolve. There is no single day on which we age.
We also take stock of our lives at 40. We fear that less of life is left in front of us than what’s behind us. As Donald Justice has written, this is the age at which we “learn to close softly the doors to rooms [we] will not be coming back to.” Or, there’s an accounting, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has written, that after this age-landmark, our homes and possessions give “a good indication” of what we are and what we have “deserved” in life.
But when we allow ourselves to be preoccupied by dark thoughts and downsides, we often miss the good parts. That’s because the best part about turning 40 is invisible to the naked eye. It’s about much more than our looks or what we’ve accumulated.
Let’s quickly review the other traditional milestones. When you were 10, you did what your parents told you to do. At 20, you followed your friends. At 30, you let expectations weigh you down. But at 40, you’re finally wise enough to decide for yourself.
You’ve been to all the places Dr. Seuss said you would go, and you’re full of so many things that he said you would know. At 40, you’ve got 14,610 days under your belt, just over 21 million minutes. You’re officially experienced.
And if true wisdom is raw knowledge coupled with life experience, then 40 seems the right place where those two qualities intersect for the greatest number of people.
Because by 40, you know where the remote is (or at least where it’s likely to be). You know who your friends are. You know when it’s OK to cry. You know when to listen. You know where to find the good stuff. You know what money’s worth. You know the highs. You know the lows. You know how to tame fear. You know what you can change (and, importantly, what you can’t).
When you’re 40, you know yourself and you know what matters.
That sounds pretty good. But is it worth my squinting eyes and thinning hair? The war with my waistline?
Yeah, I think so. (But check back with me in a couple years when I turn 40.)
Major ML Cavanaugh is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.