a reflection on turning forty


There was a time, twenty years ago, when I thought that what was really going to matter in my life would be  a matter of all or nothing. I felt it important to give my all without holding anything back. That’s why I went off to the Jesuit novitiate.

Now, twenty years late, I'm discovering that although that’s still basically right, things aren’t quite so simple or clear-cut. As I enter my forties, I'm beginning to realise that the real issue isn’t about everything or nothing, but rather about everything or nearly everything. The difficulty doesn’t come from giving—giving a lot, giving it generously—so much as from what you have held back—even if what you are holding back is quite trivial. And dealing with this reserve fund can really bite. 

A person can look back, and see that they’ve lived deeply, given of themselves generously, contributed a lot—and yet, because they’ve been pretending, there’s still an element of discontent, a gnawing feeling of something missing, a sense that there’s a card up your sleeve that needs to be played. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with this smile on your face that tells only half the real story.

I’m not talking here about proper boundaries, boundaries that you more or less have to preserve if you are really to give yourself and not just let yourself be swallowed up. I’m talking, rather, about those petty ways in which we hold back, that little nest-egg that we keep in a safe place just in case—not an investment that will enable us to give more, but a reserve that is preventing us from giving as much as we could. I’m talking about our private space or time, our untouchable fixations, our hidden secrets, the little vices we don’t admit—and then the lies which we decide to believe so as to protect these “funds” from any outside interference, any possibility of change and conversion. That’s when you realize that this kind of holding back is a trick that we play on ourselves. For fear of coming a cropper in one way, we come a bigger cropper in another.

People will tell you that at forty you lose your illusions. Don’t believe them. It’s not that you lose your illusions; rather you stop fooling yourself, which is not the same thing. Though of course people can carry on fooling themselves for another forty years or so if they want to, but it’s not worth it.

Now’s the time to put this hidden stuff on the table, and add it to the rest. Whether it’s big stuff or little stuff, it’s what we’ve got to give—the “everything” that we can offer to God. Perhaps that’s all that has to be said. But we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

From the Spanish version here.