This reflection on aging comes to us from Ryan Sanders:

recent study conducted by two professors at New York University revealed that people are more likely to make big decisions or create big regrets just before milestone birthdays. The study divined that “people audit the meaningfulness of their lives as they approach a new decade in chronological age, further suggesting that people across dozens of countries and cultures are prone to making significant decisions as they approach each new decade.”

This study tells us what we already know: as people face milestone events, they often review their lives and make adjustments. And often, their review yields troubling results. The professors say it this way: “Entering a new epoch…leads them to behave in ways that suggest an ongoing or failed search for meaning.”

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The first three such big decisions noted by the study were these: as people approach decade birthdays, they are more likely to:

  • Exercise more vigorously
  • Seek extramarital affairs
  • End their lives

That list is interesting on several levels. According to most codes, two of the items are immoral, but the first is admirable. Two of the items seem intensely personal — as private as our thoughts and pain — but the middle involves another person in its desperation. Two of the items promote life, but the third snuffs it. And all three seem to reflect varying levels of energy or hostility.

The list highlights two truths — one from the human condition and one from the Old Testament.

The universal truth here — the one under which all humans labor — is about mortality. Our bodies die. Our loves die. Our legacies die. These, the most drastic reactions to our aging — to gather power, to reproduce, to force the hand of fate — are impulses we all feel but usually manage to keep below the surface.

But if the “nines” birthdays are when we more closely examine our lives, if these are the times when we take stock, when we are most honest, then isn’t it discouraging that our most existentially lucid times are the times when we are most given to fits of futility?

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The other truth highlighted here is one from the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet Jeremiah has God saying:

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

In other words, people have a tendency to seek what they need (water / meaning) from unreliable sources (broken cisterns / gym memberships). Cisterns are good things. Without them, ancient people could not have lived. But all of our efforts to search for immortality in places besides the spring of living water are destined to fail.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. A person doesn’t create a meaningful life or enduring legacy as easily as she scoops water from a stream. There are obstacles — personal, relational, cultural, religious, psychological, and spiritual — to our even finding life-giving water. But its elusiveness isn’t a reason to abandon the search. If anything, it should make the quest even more important.

At some point in our lives, we will all stop and assess our progress. At a decade birthday, at the birth of a child, at the death of a loved one, at the end of a project, at the rim of the Grand Canyon, we all have those moments when we ponder the meaning of life and wonder if we’re doing enough. The answer to our questions — whispered to us as softly as a rippling stream of living water — carried in a time-worn ancient script — is that meaning is not to be found in frantic protests against our impermanence.