60+ is The Age of No Meaning
(No. 128) How presence, not purpose, can liberate you after age 60
Just before I turned 60 a few years ago I experienced a revelation. It could have been from God. Or just from my brain. Craving sun I made my way from my home in Manhattan to the beach at Fort Tilden, on the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of Brooklyn. I lay down in the sand, my head propped on a towel, as the sun and rolling surf soothed me into a half sleep. On my right an older couple sat on lawn chairs under an umbrella, and to my left some students soaked up the sun. I was in between these groups, half-out and half-in the shade from my umbrella, not elderly and not young.
I looked left at the wrinkled skin and seemingly satisfied faces of the older couple (older, even, than me), and to my right at the students passed out in the sun, and wondered where I fit in this world. Clearly I was closer to the old geezers than to the Gen Z kids. And the geezers looked pretty close to whatever mausoleum they’d reserved.
“Fuck, I wonder how long I’m gonna live?” I asked myself.
This question had begun popping into my head every few days as my 60th birthday approached. Would I live thirty years? Five months? Ten minutes? The answer, as for all of us, was a known unknown. Eventually, I was gonna die, expire, pass on or bite the dust. But until now, that inevitability had seemed to be far off. The thought of being 60 somehow turned my whole conception of time upside down and inside out. Whereas before, I’d always believed I had time to do whatever I wanted, now I realized that was a fallacy.
Here I was in the hot sun on one of America’s finest beaches, with a completely free afternoon to read and nap and perhaps meet new friends, but all I could think about was the fact that I was about to cross the bridge into the Third Age, the last piece of the pie. And no one knew how long that piece would last.
Here’s how I divide life. We are born and start growing, always forward and outward, until about when we turn 20. This period of growth has nothing to do with aging -- it’s all about generating muscle, thoughts, emotions, friendships. Then, at 20 we cross the bridge to the first age. Here, we focus on our desires and ambitions -- to be rich, to change the world, to find love that lasts forever, to not get knocked around by the world. We win some, and lose some. We learn a bit about life.
At 40, we cross the bridge to the Second Age. This is a very tricky place, because it mingles our previous ambitions and desires with the sometimes cold and dispiriting realization that perhaps we can’t always get what we want. Or that what we want -- happy kids, good home, influence over how the world works — requires a lot of work and hardship, and can be suddenly disrupted by weather, war and family demands.
Or we realize that what we thought we wanted -- to be a famous artist, to have perfect children, to be happily married, to remain forever interested in new music and books and shows, forever young in other words -- might not be what we want now. We begin to know better how life really works. Meaning becomes a dominant thought. Along with purpose. We’re always counting down the days until we find or fulfill our purpose, whether that’s to make money, help people in need, or find that perfect career. In the Second Age we want meaningful lives that work really well. Not that all of us find them. All the while a horizon is coming visible. Fifty becomes 55, which becomes -- well, you know.
We cross the Third Bridge into our 60s and discover that nothing is quite like we’d planned. Many of my own projections about money, success, spirituality and more were undermined over the decades by divorce, death and my own mistakes. Twice in my life I’d felt I’d worked out my retirement finances. Both times that turned out not to be true. By the time my 60th birthday came close, I’d fulfilled several of my creative and work goals, but they hadn’t fulfilled me. I remember as a young journalist living in Tokyo having this thought: If I ever get a story published in the New York Times, I will feel complete. That will be it. Well, that wasn’t true -- I published over a hundred stories in that paper, and while I was glad for the work and exposure, none of them fulfilled me.
As I lay on the beach gazing at the bluest water, alive with ripples and waves and foam, it dawned on me that this beach, right now, was all that I had: sand, water, wind, the sound of hip hop from a nearby boom box. It was beautiful, and enough, to sit in the sun surrounded by nature’s incredible colors and patterns and just breathe.
God, this realization gave me such relief.
There was no meaning in that moment, other than unity with the forces all around me. I had no purpose other than to take care of myself and enjoy whatever happened, minute by minute. I didn’t think about the journey I’d make at the end of the day back to my home in Manhattan. I didn’t think about the upcoming deadline for one of my writing projects. I didn’t think about the extra ten pounds I carried around my belly, visible above my bathing suit for the world to judge. I didn’t think, Oh, I’d like to meet someone and have a beautiful life together. I didn’t think any of this. At all. For that moment.
This feeling seemed like an important key. And now I’m trying to unlock the door.