The young can be forgiven their confusion and immaturity. After all, everyone needs time to experiment, make mistakes, and grow. Beyond 40, however, the lost and confused cease to be charming and begin to seem whiney and pathetic. To put it bluntly, once you reach 40 it's time to grow up. A younger generation now looks to you for love and guidance, just as the older generation will soon depend on you for comfort and support.
"They **** you up, your mum and dad," wrote the poet Philip Larkin. Quote this line in your 40s, however, and you deserve little sympathy. Everyone had imperfect parents because everyone's parents were human – and humans are imperfect.
Some will complain of smothering, others of neglect. Some will recall their parents’ bitter divorce and use this to excuse their own. Others will blame their parents for a lack of career success, explaining that mum and dad pressured them too much, or undermined their confidence, or guided them down the wrong path. The list is endless. By 40, it is no longer an acceptable excuse for your failure and unhappiness.
First, recognize that you can let go. You could begin by dropping that childish image of your parents as ogres or giants. Instead, accept them for what they were: fragile, flawed human beings stumbling through life like everyone else. Consider their own childhoods. Were they neglected or abused? Maybe they smothered you because they were desperate for the love they'd never had, or maybe they blindly continued the cycle of abuse passed on by their own parents. How old were they when you were born? Were they young and stupid? If so, imagine your mother as a frightened, pregnant teen. Sooner or later you must say to yourself "ah well, they did the best they could – they just weren't very good at it. Time to move on and be sure I don't repeat their mistakes with my own kids."
If something is wrong with your life, you must take responsibility. Once you reach your 40s, you must recognize that you are the boss and that you are in charge of your career, children, finances, marriage etc. This does not mean you are to blame when things go wrong. No, it isn't your fault that you were made redundant or that your brother is an alcoholic. Taking responsibility is different from accepting blame. If someone tells you to take responsibility and you reply with a sulky "it's not my fault," then you still have some growing up to do.
Of course, parents are not the only people who cause us harm. Bullying, infidelity, abuse, and betrayal often leave people with deeply ingrained beliefs about themselves and the world. You ought to have realized by now that you can revise and update the beliefs you formed in youth.
Adolescent insecurities can linger well into your 20s and 30s. By 40, however, it really is time to let them go. One of the great blessings of ageing is that you care less what other people think of you. It is common to feel inadequate or inferior when you are young. This is especially true of the introverted, self-conscious, or socially anxious. Maybe you just weren't suited to being a teenager (many aren't). But you are 40 now. If you'd rather stay at home and read a book than go to a party, then do so – and stop feeling guilty. If you don't have many friends and are quite happy on your own, so be it. By now you ought to know who you are and have developed the confidence to be who you are.
Nothing lasts forever. In your teens and 20s, especially if you escape bereavement and trauma, you may not really believe this. Rationally people know it is true, but deep down they are often in denial. By 40, this should have changed. By now you ought to have truly accepted the fact that nothing, and no one, lasts and that no job, home, or relationship is permanent.
You cannot control the world. Indeed, you have very little control at all. The wheel of fortune turns and accepting this can be hard. After 40 your priorities should begin to change. Make a point of savouring every moment you have with those you love. Give them all your attention – and tell them how you feel. As the fact of impermanence is driven home, usually via the death of a parent, the 40-something can go one of two ways, either slipping into despair and bitterness or deciding to make the most of every day. The first option is easy; the second takes courage.
Unless you are exceptionally lucky (or exceptionally insensitive), you will have probably witnessed great suffering by the time you reach 40. Even if you and your loved ones have been spared, you probably know a friend or neighbor who has not. And of course everyone reads the papers or hears the news. Terrible things happen all the time: planes crash, young mothers die of breast cancer, children are killed by drunk drivers, and so on. By 40, experience should have driven home the lesson that life is short and often cruel.
More generally, you ought to now be aware of, and reconciled to, your limitations. Let's be honest, your chances of being the next David Bowie or Mick Jagger are now vanishingly small! And if you have yet to write that great novel, well, it is unlikely that you ever will. This does not mean you must give up on your dreams of course, but there comes a time when you must face up to reality. Being aware of the darker side of existence should help. OK, so you are not rich or famous – but neither does your child have cancer. Be humble and be grateful.
Such gratitude and humility can bring with it a renewed love for life's trivial pleasures. In their 20s and 30s, most people are so preoccupied with "making it" in some way or other that they take these pleasures for granted. By 40 you ought to have recognized that it is the simple things that matter: walking the dog, laying in a hot bubble bath, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, or simply watching the sun rise.
Adolescence is usually spent trying to work out who you are and what you want to be. Unfortunately, many people conclude that what they'd like to be is someone else: someone cooler, prettier, funnier etc. This wish to be someone else is excusable in the young. In a 40-year-old it is pitiful.
By 40 you ought to have realized that all you can ever be is you. You should also have dropped the mask you wore in your teens and 20s. Many people spend that part of their life playing a role: pretending to like music, books, and celebrities they secretly loathe or to hold political beliefs in which they have no faith. People wear such masks because they fear that their real self will be rejected. By 40 you should have gained enough confidence and strength to say "this is who I am, and this is what I like. If you have a problem with the real me, then too bad."
Words like "should" and "ought" will no doubt antagonize some readers. Obviously there is no correct way to behave at 40, or at any other age. And just because someone wears a sensible suit, holds down a responsible job, and generally behaves like a "grown up" that does not mean they are. Such a person may have the emotional intelligence of a child, just as a 40-year-old with dyed hair and a love for rock festivals may be mature and wise. Above all, 40 is the time to develop emotional depth and to recognize a simple truth – that kindness and love are better than their opposites.