I have zero understanding of what I'm supposed to know at 50. There are no secret societies passing out esoteric knowledge about the real meaning of life, but I fully expect mailers from AARP within the week. I am about to be part of the largest voting bloc in the country, and as such, I'm supposed to help add to the clamor about geriatric issues, and while I'm aware I'm going to keep aging and die, I just don't care about those things. Maybe because I work with 18- and 19-year olds every day.
Sitting down to reflect on a half century of being alive would take more time than I have available this week. That's because I have packed my week with friends and family and wine and food and everything that I love about my life at every age. I've never been a good intentional reflecter; it's just contrary to my nature. If someone asks me to comment or reflect, I can, but I don't do it as a habit of life. Suffice it to say I've caused more than my share of chaos, suffering, and shittiness in 50 years, but I like to think the last ten years of the first half century have been far better than the second decade, wherein I caused no small amount of consternation and shame and suffering for my family and friends. Things that make good stories aren't always good stories at the time; they are sources of pain and confusion and selfishness.
That sounds kind of profound, and I think that is what I believe 50 was suppposed to represent, a kind of hard-earned profundity, the kind that comes from a punch in the face, not knowing the rules. When I was a young pastor, not quite 30, my congregants would occasionally tell me how wise I was "for my age." Really, though, I wasn't. I just knew what to say. Having read the Bible through more than a dozen times in a five-year period, I was well-versed (ha!) in the vocabulary of the community of reference, and always having been outstanding at persuasion, people believed me because I knew the text and spoke authoritatively. That isn't wisdom; that's a skill in communication.
The same principle can be applied in the wine business, the writing about of which occupies a good bit of my time these days and for the past seven or so years. Know enough of the vocabulary, speak authoritatively enough, and you can convince people with less knowledge that they want what you say they want. They want the process to be demystified, to be made safer, to make them feel less ignorant, and the best way to go about it is by not being a dick about sharing information.
That may be the theme I have decided really matters after a half century. I tell my students that my theology (or atheology, Mr. Rollins) can be reduced to "don't be a dick." I like to believe that religion, if it should do anything at all, should prepare people to be redemptive in this life, and I don't give a single shit about the next life. So much of religion now is preparation for a reality that may or may not exist, and if it does, no one has a clue as to what it will be like. Practice redemption—not being a dick—for this life.
Teachers are teachers because we like a few things: attention, students, learning, a job with nearly zero physical labor, books, and the process of teaching. When we are honest, we say we want our students to change their minds about stuff when they are in our classes. Why wouldn't we? Why else teach? No, I don't want to create little mes, but I don't want racists and fundamentalists to leave my class with that toxic worldview intact either. I want them to be smarter, kinder, more open-minded, more interesting, to have been transformed even a little bit into better humans. I want them to give a shit, lots of shits about things that matter, things like other people, other people's feelings and narratives, justice, equality, race, gender, and a whole huge list of shit that only sounds sappy by its listing.
I am an idealist with a narcissitic streak. I have learned that. I like me. Other people should, too, and I'm confused when they don't. It took me decades not to take that personally, though, so now I spread the blame between my sometimes unfiltered intensity and mouth and their misunderstanding of how I use words, humor, laughter, and silence. The world is an unkind place for idealists, so we find ways to medicate ourselves, through booze or drugs or love or other people's admiration, or worst of all, a sort of poisonous orientation toward criticism and judgment that finds fault with those who don't share our idealism. (So many in the business of professional ministry suffer from this affliction.) It took me decades to temper that as well. Idealists are good at envisioning a world, but we suck at actually building it, so the judgment is equally directed at me, because I want to live in a world where there are no hungry people, but I also want other people to take care of it. I have just enough hypocrisy in me to accuse others of not working for justice while making the mistake that talking about justice is somehow working for justice.
All that to say I have learned in a half century that I'm just me, and some of the insecurities I had at 20 and 30 and 40 are still with me at 49 and 364 days. It's like the zit outbreak when you were 13—you remember the first time you woke in the morning with what looked like a massive wound on your face. Your body betrayed you. After several of those moments over the years, your parents said they would go away one day. But they don't, but knowing that at the time would have been a grievous wound on our developing psyches, so wise parents put off the truth until a zit wasn't such a source of despair. We believe we get better as we get older, and we do in some ways, but in others we are still the awkward kid at the dance or the one picked last or the one made fun of or the one who could've should've and didn't.
Friends help. Family helps (sometimes). We are constantly becoming and we are always the same, and in 50 years I'll be damned if I know who I'm supposed to become, but I kind of know who I am. That is a gift in itself. It is one of the motions of grace of aging. There are curses aplenty, but to know who you are, to be confident in your worth, to know your skills and your limitations—that is grace. To know that love is transient and friendship doesn't have to be—that, too, is grace. To understand that other people tell us who we are when they speak the truth...grace. To be content with all that is right and wrong with me so long as others aren't wounded in the wrongness, grace. I've been out of the faith for eight years, and I still love that concept. Religion is most practical when it's actually practiced without a worry for the metaphysical justifications, so I feel free to use words like sin and grace because they make sense in this life, and they make sense because they do what they are supposed to do: draw us close to others or fracture relationships.
When you turn 50, I thought when I was a youngish minister, you are supposed to say profound stuff all the time. Profundity is almost always accidental, though, so deciding to be profound is a sure path to learning the words and the rules and not actually being profound. Wisdom can be intentional, though, and a punch in the face is still more effective than memorizing the rules and possible consequences.
That's enough. Friends are implementing some secret plan to celebrate my birthday eve, and at this point in my life, nothing gives me more joy. I am alive because I have friends, and daughters, and wine, and a good life. I get to do the two things I always wanted to do, teach and write, and getting to do what you want with your life is grace, and when you can actually do those things well, it's a good, grace-filled life.