Comforting Words: The Power of Forty

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Power of Forty

In her book, If Not Now, When? Stephanie Marston seemingly wants to reassure readers, who like me are on the brink of the big four-oh, that they have a few more years to go before mid-life crisis set in. She writes that it happens somewhere between forty and forty-five, when your world is shaken, rocked and you are thrown into that dirty place called "crisis."

Marston however consoles with her reminder that being in “crisis” is not as negative as the western culture would have us believe. The word crisis has its roots in the Greek word krinein, or krisis meaning “a separating” or “a turning point.” She says that this implies that being in mid-life crisis is really about “letting go of the old ways of being, a time when we can ask ourselves what we need to leave behind and what we can reclaim.” Based on her experience, Marston suggests that this period can be very overwhelming but it can also “lead to increased power and a stronger sense of self.”

This week I will celebrate my fortieth birthday and enter the zone where and when “mid-life crisis” becomes a real possibility. I invite you to join me on this journey and recall or anticipate your own Power of 40 , increase your power and sense of self with the help of these Words from Scripture, Words of Comfort and Words from the Heart.


From Confucianism:

Analects 2.4

“At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet upon firm ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with a docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart, for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”

From Buddhism:

Dhammapada 260-61:

“He is not thereby an elder merely because his head is gray. Ripe is he in age; “old in vain” is he called. In whom are truth, virtue, harmlessness, restraint, and self-control, that wise man who is purged of impurities is, indeed, called elder.”

(Excerpt from Confucianism and Buddhism taken from World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology (St. Paul: Paragon House, 1995) 588 - 589


As you turn on the television or flip the through your favourite magazines, you are bombarded with reminders that you are inadequate.

The democratic thing about this assault however is that you get to choose where your inadequacy lies. There are no shortages of inadequacies and the more you have and the more your are willing to acknowledge, the better it is – for the manufacturers, of course.

As much as I hate to make the following statement – I will:
The cosmetic, clothing and pharmaceutical manufacturers pay me a backhand compliment in their advertising that I am thankful for. It releases me from a fair amount of pressure that you – my Caucasian sisters have to handle or dodge. Thankfully, where I reside in Western Canada and once I stick to the local channels and magazines, much of that pressure is off me.

This was not always the case however, where I could “escape” images that informed me of my inadequacies. Living as I did for the first seventeen years of my life on a small Caribbean island, there were two dominant sets of images about getting old. “Old” women were the matriarchs of the society and in my case when I looked at my mother the only thing I could see were her struggles, workload and general hardship. (In Jamaica, we actually call women of a certain age “old women” – in some instances as an endearment, but quite often with disdain.)

There was another set of “old” women – the middle or upper class women, who lived lives so far removed from my reality that it was even harder for me to imagine my aging gracefully. The thought of getting to forty scared the daylights out of me as teenager. Actually, after a while any number beyond twenty was not something I thought about without dread.

My dread was compounded with the arrival of satellite television and the American culture, which to this day threatens the local identity. A new set of images entered my screen and I started to learn how inadequate I was as a black, thick lipped and nappy hair woman in the eyes of the wider world.

Certainly, we knew the history of slavery and how our island home was re-populated with our African grandparents. I for one was well aware of the racial and political struggles in the United States and in South Africa growing up as I did in a home with a politically active mother.

None of this however fully prepared me for my first day in the “world” outside of my paradise, where people of African descent are the majority. Nothing that I had learnt in text books, in the political rhetoric of 1970’s Jamaica or the womanist-words of my role model, Beverley Anderson-Manley, former first lady of Jamaica, prepared me for the two-punch blow of racism and sexism.

Who could prepare you for the questions whether your tail was removed and whether your skin colour would not come off with a good scouring? When you add these insults to the constant images of what a ‘real woman’ looks like – white, slim, blonde and perpetually young, you can image how much I dreaded getting old.

Though I would return to my paradise, well educated and full of hope, underneath the feeling of inadequacy remained, refusing to leave. I am sure that all my sisters, of whatever race or nationality has this feeling as you come to learn, through television, magazines, books and now the internet, that that the image you see in the mirror is not that of a “real woman.”

Unlearning this lesson is hard and often comes after much psychological scarring, pain and hurt. Now on the brink of forty, I can confess that my krinein came in a series and my hair was “grey” long before I started to aging. My turning point came when the pain was too great to bear, the confusion so deep and life was spiraling into meaninglessness. Seemingly, at the bottom of the pit, someone reminded me to breathe.

With that first breath, I started the process, one, which I am sure, will continue for the rest of my life. It is hard work which is tempting to give up, especially as the advertising campaigns, subtle though they may be, continues to reinforce this superficial idea of perfect woman.

Even among the African-American community, the advertisting messages have now been crafted to image a darker version of the perfect white woman. She is what we Jamaicans call a "browning" - of a lighter hue, still slim, with long (in some case artifical) hair. The multicultural and diverse Canada is no different - at least in the West where I live. The few images that you do see of African-Canadians fit this new stereo-type.

These messages are especially brutal to us aging women of any race - in that they are constant. Aging women bear the brunt of their assault with our sagging skins, dropping buttocks, cellulite legs, grey hairs growing in embarrassing places and, worst of all, we have socks where breasts once were.

Seemingly ensconced in Western Canada with the possibility to ‘hide’ from U.S. media ads by watching local television, one might think that life is perfect. Think again. Here, it is double jeopardy. I am invisibile on two counts: as an African-Canadian and as an aging woman.

Forty has new meaning to me these days. As Confucian text said at forty "I no longer suffer perplexities." I have come to learn that whoever, wherever, however old or young and whatever the colour of our skins, as women we must constantly reclaim our power.

Who I am and who you are should never be determined by anyone but the person you see in the mirror. As we battle (and it is a battle) to remain grounded in the truth that life was meant to include sagging breasts and grey hair in places you would rather them not be – we give birth to our authentic selves.

On the eve of becoming forty, daily I reclaim the fullness of my power – as woman of African descent, mother, lover, friend, human, and God’s child – nappy hair, sagging breasts and all!

P.S. While it is not my intention to advertise any book or author, I would really recommend reading Stephanie Marston’s book, If Not Now, When: Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife.


(This week, Words from the heart is a poem, The Clearing, by Morgan Farley, as printed in If Not Now, When? pages 217 - 218)

I am clearing a space –
here, where the trees stand back.
I am making a circle so open
the moon will fall in love
and stroke these grasses with her silver.

I am setting stones in the four directions,
stones that have called my name
from mountaintop and riverbeds, canyons and mesas.
Here I will stand with my hands empty,
mind gaping under the moon.

I know there is another way to live.
When I find it, the angels
will cry out in rapture,
each cell of my body
will be a rose, a star.

If something seized my life tonight,
if a sudden wind swept through me,
changing everything,
I would not resist.
I am ready for whatever comes

But I think it will be
something small, an animal
padding out from the shadows,
or a word spoken so softly
I hear it inside.

It is dark out here, and silent.
The moon is stone.
I am alone with my longing.
Nothing is happening
but the next breath, and the next. . . .

Blessings, until next week.


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