How do you start to live your life at (nearly) 40?
The last thing I expected to feel when I finished my PhD was elation. But as I walked out of my dissertation defense, I was bursting with unfamiliar emotions: happiness, even a bit of pride.
My family were so anxious about the news, they showed up on campus before I had even called. Relieved, they whisked me to a favourite restaurant where, at the start of what turned out to be the perfect meal, I said with unusual exuberance to our server, “I’m celebrating! I’ll have something sparkling!” That same evening, I met the two friends who’ve been with me since I started grad school, and there was first more sparkling wine, and then far too many half-litres of Lilly Pilly Sauvignon Blanc. The next night, twenty-five more of my brilliant friends gathered at a crowded, dimly-lit bar and I flitted back and forth between groups, hugged everyone with abandon and, to use the scientific term, felt fucking great. It was for a brief couple of days my life as I had always wanted it: the warm company of family and friends, the luxury of indulgence, and the surprising feeling that I may not in fact be worthless.
The sentiment passed.
It would be misleading to say there have been no lingering, positive effects to finishing. I feel proud, not so much of my dissertation, but rather of the sheer, dogged stubbornness it took to get done. I am nonetheless now struck by the unfortunate reality that I am, shockingly, just shy of 40, and feel as if I am somehow half a person. I have skipped out on much of what constitutes a normal life, and adulthood looms before me, intimidating and foreign. How do you start to actually live your life when you’re already an old man?
My peers and friends spent their time at grad school doing the things they should: professionalizing, dating, and making the kinds of transitions that happen to people in their late twenties and early thirties: to be a bit trite, wine bars rather than dive bars. Now all of them, academic and not, have become functioning grown-ups, which is to say, none of them ever use the term “grown-ups.” Few are what you would call orthodox, but they are carving out their own paths in the world: forging careers, getting married or moving in together, raising families — you know, living.
Meanwhile, the list of things I simply don’t know about is long and deeply embarrassing. I have no sense, for example, of what it is like to be in a relationship as part of my everyday life — to have someone to talk to after a hard day, or go to a movie or restaurant with, or to think of myself as more than just a solitary person. I only vaguely remember those six months in the early 2000s when I was a college lecturer, the one time in my life I was, in the more traditional sense of the term, “working.” And if I am invoking the normative cliches, I may as well say that I have also never taken a weekend away, or rented a car, or gone on a date (on purpose, anyway), or, hell, met a group of friends for brunch. I instead spent year after year putting things off while time passed, age took its toll, and everyone I knew moved on. Now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I have roundly and thoroughly fucked up my life. After all, though it’s true I started and then cultivated a writing career while completing the dissertation, I am still living out that most obvious North American symbol of a life gone wrong: I’m single, nearly 40, and typing this in my parents’ home, where I have lived for the past four years.
It was the accretion of a thousand small choices made out of fear that led me here, not some cataclysmic mistake. That’s the thing about avoiding life: each tiny evasion builds upon the last, gradually calcifying into a kind of defensive crust so that, from the outside, you appear to have the same patina of wear and tear as everyone else, but underneath, you are hollow, brittle, incomplete. What I am primarily left with now is regret, which comes in waves of self-reproach, each missed opportunity or refusal playing out in my memory in excruciating detail.
Still, I haven’t yet abandoned hope. Undoing a lifetime of evasion will be no easy task, but I’m not resigning myself to this misery and nothing more. (Therapy is helping.) It is a strange thing, though, to start thinking about what you actually want from life at an age when, inevitably, it dawns on you it has an end, too. Though I lived for far too long in an extended adolescence, with it came the persistently hopeful idea that it wasn’t too late to change. Now, the time I have left to become the kind of person I want to be is, in a way that feels strangely sudden, running out.
My dissertation was on something I called The Holographic Self. In it, the eponymous hologram is an expression of a desire to exceed the limitations of subject position, and I located that yearning in the logics of digitality. As a piece of writing, it is plodding and too earnest by half, but as is the case with much academic work, it is also surreptitiously autobiographical. There I was, spending years in front of a laptop, letting my life slip by, while writing about how we project the desire for our idealized selves into the digital.
So in this particular, rather long-winded narrative, this is where I think I’m supposed to tell you that I’ve made peace with my wasted life, and I’m ready to become that new person — to actualize my holographic longing. But I can’t. There is, unfortunately, always a naively optimistic dimension to writing about How One Is Going To Make One’s Life Better™. It often ends up being a performance of the way you want things to go, and in reality, they never quite work out in so neat a manner. (I still haven’t had that coffee.)
One thing I am clear on, though? I don’t regret finishing that godforsaken PhD. I still don’t know about starting it, mind you; you’ll have to check with me on my deathbed. But I stuck to it, and at the end I had a glass of something sparkling and I felt like I deserved it. I felt great, in fact. I think that’s an equation I’m actually pretty happy about: write 400 pages over five years and at the end, you get a single flute of Crémant d’Alsace, and for once, a feeling like you actually fucking did something.
I don’t quite know how to start living at 40. I mean, obviously I have some rough ideas, and not all of them succumb to the aggressively “normal” version of life I’ve laid out thus far; I don’t really care that much about brunch. I do know, however, that the next step is not as simple as merely accepting that I have lived the life I have lived. That isn’t enough. My regrets are still too large, yet too numerous for me to simply lay them to rest.
But when you’ve spent a lifetime hiding from everything, beginning and then finishing something hard — and then enjoying the rewards — is at the very least, a step in the right direction. And the PhD took the form of one of the few things that gives me comfort and (fine, I’ll say it) that I’m good at: taking ideas, and shaping them into sentences and paragraphs that, sometimes, other people find interesting to read.
At the very least, one can take that life, those aimless, spent years, and put an aesthetic frame around both them and the ideas and perspective they have produced — and hopefully, occasionally say something pretty or profound. It’s not much. And in truth, it may not be enough. I guess I just like the self-reflexivity of it all: write out how you’re trying to make things better, and you end up making things better by writing it out. So, with few other options, I will put one word in front of the other, and see what happens.
And here at the end, after choosing for so long to barely live at all, isn’t that, if nothing else, a start?