The mid-life switch.
If we’re lucky, we live long enough to hear our bodies tell us we’re past our best. It doesn’t happen overnight — even if recognition of it does — as it’s a process of attrition that begins much earlier. During our teenage years we peak in our capacity for risk-taking. During our twenties we’re at our fastest and strongest. In our thirties we’re better at the long-haul. Even our forties can surprise us: if we’ve looked after ourselves, muscle memory can lend us an age-defying strength and resilience that can out-run much younger bodies. But by the next decade of our lives there’s rarely any doubt of our physical decline. So where do we go from here if we want to continue a sense of progression?
Another decade has passed since this question was painfully punched into my back. I’d just turned forty-nine, was climbing as well as I’d ever climbed, cycling fast and running hard. I remember thinking, ‘Old age? Bring it on!’ And it did, with a bloody big boot up my arse. Suddenly, I was no longer young.
It’s interesting to observe how others have made the mid-life switch from determined progression towards some other place, to mindful acceptance of where they are. Professional athletes become coaches or commentators. Performers become teachers. Cutting-edge climbers become mountain guides. By making their experience and wisdom available to others, older people can give themselves a new purpose. Their progression is picked up by the next generation and carried forward, like a baton in a relay race, and no longer feeling the need to push against the inexorable advance of the years they can stop and catch their breath and watch the baton fly.
I’m a list-ticker as much as the next person. First it was Dartmoor tors, then it was alpine north faces and the seven continental summits. I could aim for lesser lists, things that are achievable for a sixty-something with a stuffed spine, but the thought of them is uninspiring. Attempting them would be holding on too hard to my youth. Better to yield gracefully and find another path.
Since coming to South Australia I’ve discovered Operation Flinders, a charity that takes young people on an eight-day outback hike. Along the way they’re set various individual and team challenges which are run by volunteers. I help out with the abseiling.
Over the course of a potentially life-changing week, eighty young people descend a twenty-eight-metre cliff on a pinkie-thin rope, a journey of trust that takes them from fear of the edge into the thrill of the vertical and returns them to horizontal ground where a new self-belief shows itself in their shouts and smiles and their hard-slapping high-fives. For the teenage participants of Operation Flinders, abseiling is not just about sliding down a rope. It's about discovering the joy and power that comes when you push through your fear. Being a witness to that discovery is a privilege I’ll never tire of.
I no longer yearn for my youth. I’ve had my years in the sun and the snow, and I’m happy for others to take my place in the prime of life, to feel their invincibility as I once did. If they live long enough, I like to think they’ll arrive at the same point that I have, and they’ll flick the mid-life switch and be satisfied with what they’ve done and be generous with what they’ve learned.