What I’ve Learned from Every Decade in My Life


Yep, I just turned 50. And I’ve never felt better! Actually, that’s quite a load of BS. The knees are aching, unnamed parts are sagging, eyebrows are thinning, and I have a chemical addiction: to my hair-colorist. Oh, and there’s my new best friend? Her name is Martha migraine. Say wha? You don’t name your migraines? Oh, and let’s not forget the lovely menopause: simultaneously way too hot and so not hot. Yep, lovely.

And yet I’ve never been more fully ready for fifty. It’s something I’m very much proud to BEcoming.

Because this 50-thing, I’ve been becoming it for quite some time—careening through this blessed, complex, beautiful, full-of-privileges life, all while wanting to believe and “be” enough of something so that when I reach one of these socially-constructed milestones (holy crap, you’re FIFTY!), I might have something to say. To show. To tell. To show and tell!? To offer, perhaps by way of answering in some profound way the question: “What have you learned in your 50 years?!”

Hmmm. Not sure.

Oh, sure, I mean between 0-19 years I learned that love is love is LOVE! (Thank you, family. Seriously.)

And in my 20’s, I learned about the beautifully messy and perfectly imperfect, full-on reality of what hard-core commitment looks/feels/acts/breathes like. Yes, thank you o’beautiful groom: the model of grace, patience, and living a life committed fully to ensuring others’ voices are lifted and honored—always my partner in together being better at that shared mission. And thank you, children, for teaching me that no one literally dies of sleep deprivation. At least not usually.

And in my 30’s, I learned the art of authentic, soul-bearing apologies. Of how forgiveness (of self) and forgiveness (of others) are the hardest of the easiest tasks. Newsflash: We all SUCK sometimes. Yes, you too. Me for sure. In fact, me probably too often. Thank you, 30’s, for showing me that I become stronger only becoming shedding the pride and revealing/feeling/fully-BE-ing more vulnerable – the secret sauce of enough-ing. Oh, it was also in my 30’s I finally learned the truth about semicolons, thank goodness. Please, everyone, learn about them; you’ll never regret increasing your self-confidence via perfecting your punctuation. (See what I did there? Yes, correctly used one. You’re welcome.)

And in my 40’s, amen, I learned “no” is a complete sentence. (Empowering, indeed!) That we all need friends 10-20 years our junior and 10-20 years our senior. Women, get yourself a mentor and BE a mentor. Yes, you’re more than worthy of both. And the biggest lesson cemented during my 40’s: that the only significant learning comes with a significant measure of pain. Thank you, Martha-migraine. Yes, more than I hate you I actually thank you. Thank you, anxiety. Thank you, embarrassing professional choices. Thank you, heart wrenching friendship break-ups. Thank you, hitting reply-all the one and only time (not) I let that snarky comment slip out my fingertips. So very much not my best moment. #understatement. Yes, thank you, 40’s, for fully teaching me (ouch) that failure and pain is the single best teacher.

And as I welcome 50, here’s just one more thing I am sure (mostly) of:

I finally figured out how to have the best birthday, and in that finding found out a few more truths. Okay, so it only took me 49 years. But this year I chose to spend my day in service. Oh, I know it sounds so trite: in the giving we are receiving. But holy mighty wow, it’s surely never felt more true—especially since our world currently feels more than a bit upside down. For the past 49 years, I would spend my “day” relishing in the tsunami of cards and calls and FB messages and deliveries and cakes and more cards and more love from family and friends. Don’t get me wrong; those all were and continue to be welcomed and lovely. And no judgment if you enjoy all of the above on your big day. Because each one of those gifts/gestures/acts—year, after year, after year—was/is soul-helium. But this year I chose to spend the anniversary of my 50th year in this beautiful world—one of living a grand and blessed existence—at a non-profit designed to give families and individuals a fresh, empowering, educational-based start during times of transition. Yes, I know—truly, I know: direct service creates little systems change, and systems change is the most important type of change in our world. I promise y’all, I fully capital-K-know that truth. And yet what I also simultaneously know and believe in this journey to continually BEcome a better human is that you can work hard and focus on the long-game of system’s change while not putting off making one moment, one life, one meal, and/or one person’s day and/or experience and/or mood even a tiny tad bit kinder/better/sweeter/lovelier. Perhaps holding someone’s “enough” until they can hold it again for themselves.

And as an optimist, I can’t help but believe that if enough of us spread radical love and acceptance and inclusiveness and kindness; that if enough of us notice and acknowledge and listen without judgment or hurry; that if enough of us would put down our damn phones and actually look at others’ humanity; that … if … if … if … yes, if enough of us would check ourselves from assuming that others’ have the worst intentions and/or stop ourselves from reading another’s email in our head with the nastiest tone. Imagine IF we each opted to BE the actors in a world wherein enough of us—act by act—modeled precisely the profound empathy and care our families, relationships, communities, classrooms, conversations, and world needs. And deserves! And wants. And, did I mention needs?

This decade and until I’m given no more decades, that’s a world I’m not giving up on. You?

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Carol Bruess, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, studies and writes about relationships, is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals, and is preparing her best happy-dance for empty-nest-time next year (but shhhh—don’t tell her kids because they think she’s going to be all weepy). Check out her research, books and sewing/design shenanigans over at carolbruess.com.