This Is 40
Gloria Steinem recently turned 80. In a New York Times essay on the eve of Steinem's birthday, Gail Collins celebrates how the "face of feminism" has aged. Though Steinem's name is synonymous with the historic movement, she remains modest about her accomplishments.
"It's a big gift to be recognized as part of something that matters to people, but that's not the same thing as being responsible for something."
Steinem, in her 20s, had planned to write, "The Death Book," which would have included "great stories and last words and other anecdotes about dying." Not surprisingly, the young Steinem failed to interest a publisher in the book, and ironically, the old Steinem has lacked the disciplined quiet to write it. (She celebrated 80 in Botswana, and as Collins writes, is resolved toward "moving the movement forward.")
I now wonder if Steinem's legacy is owed to her understanding of life's brevity, if her achievements can be attributed to her preoccupation, even as a young woman, with death.
In a month, I'll turn 40. I am now reading essays on aging with avid interest, and I'm even brooding on death (which will no doubt seem extraordinary, if not morose). I feel myself to be an oddity among my peers. Who thinks of death when there is still so much life ahead? Why give thought to life's wintering when it is summer and we are young? Forty is the new 20—right?
Perhaps it's my own father's death as a 40-something that forces on me an awareness of life's borrowed qualities. He died before he grayed, when I was 18 and lacking keen sense of the injustice of the timing. Friends and family gathered, lining up to convey their condolences for this young man's death. It all made so little sense to me at the time. Except that now I'm nearly 40 and feel my own entitlement to more decades. More time.
Pamela Druckerman, in her essay, What You Learn in Your 40s, describes the "now-or-never mood" of this season of life. "We still have time for a second act, but we'd better get moving on it." It looks this way to me: atop the proverbial hill (over which I soon fall), we feel ourselves young. But our own lived history, the fact that we've cleared some trees and caught a view of the horizon line—this chastens our youthful naiveté. There is nothing forever about 21. Time indeed runs out.
How do I die? And die well? We don't know how to ask these questions. We aren't seeking for their answers. But we should. The Bible itself is preoccupied with death, insisting that life is only lived well with mortality in view. "The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty... They are soon gone, and we fly away... So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom," (Psalm 90:10, 12).
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