In Plenary, Presentation on May 25, 2011 at 10:58 am

The ancient Egyptians believed that once the body had died it took forty days for consciousness to dissolve in the long, slow alka seltzer death of the physical. They held a ceremony after that to mark the final separation of body from spirit.

In Japan old age begins at forty. Apparently.

Buddha fasted for forty days before wandering off into the desert. He probably wasn’t thinking particularly straight at that point; maybe someone should have stopped him. Still, it worked out.

Jesus also fasted for forty days but he was already in the desert. We all know how that ended.

In Islam the world is supported by forty pillars as is the dome of the mosque of Omar in Jerusalem. The prophet had forty companions. I have sixty-two according to facebook.

In the Greek myths of Persephone there were forty nights of mourning and forty days of sacrifice in the greeting of Mithra

The astute reader may have picked up that I’ve had the number forty on my mind. Let’s just say it’s taken on a certain relevance; it’s got a hold on me – probably more accurate in fact to say that I can’t get it off my mind – rattling around in there like a novelty candle in a balloon.

“Just a number” is the standard response of course.

“Means nothing”.

But it does mean something! It’s highly specific in fact and so fairly strong in the meaning department. It can be distinguished for example from thirty-nine or forty-one with some precision, and it gets even easier with numbers like three or a hundred and seven.

It means something. That much I’m sure of.

Don’t try to sell me on the “means nothing” defence. I’m not buying.

This is it then. The fourth floor. Middle age. Statistically I’m every bit as dead as I am alive. Insult to injury; I must soldier on now in the incontrovertible knowledge that there is a younger generation.

Damn them!

But what does it mean? How should I feel?

I’ll tell you how I don’t feel; I don’t feel old. Ok, I acknowledge I’m getting crankier – by the hour – but not old. When I look around me on a bus or a train I still identify with the younger types. The older ones seem…older to me. Some of them, I suspect, are around my age. I still feel like a child, a baby – the foetal position is one of my favourite pastimes for heaven’s sake.

And I’m good at it.

I suspect I need to get out more: the other evening I asked K what the matter was.

“Absolutely nothing” she replied, surprised to be asked, “you’re the one that’s coming across like Jack Nicholson in The Shining“.

I’d been googling instances of the number forty. Most of them crop up in the bible, it turns out, and pertain to some kind of torment.

Moses, poor man, was drowning in the number forty. He was forty years old when God tapped him on the shoulder and told him to lead the people of Israel. That’s a big ask, as you’d know if you’d met any Israelis. He spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain waiting for the stone tablets. No explanation for the delay. Not a word.

The good book refers to no fewer than eight periods of forty days; the forty days that Moses was up there on the mount, the forty more days he was back up there after the sin of the Golden Calf, the forty days of the spies, the forty days of Elijah, the forty days of  Jonah and Nineveh, the forty days of Ezekiel, the forty days that the devil spent tempting Jesus and the forty days that Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection.

Israel in the wilderness for forty years…

Scholars have made much of the symbolism. According to someone called R. Allendy (no, me neither) ” it is the achievement of a cycle in the world, or rather the rhythm of the cyclic repetitions in the Universe”.

Fair enough.

Claude of Saint Martin tells us it represents man’s struggle against the prince of disorder. If you say so, Claude.

Wherever it crops up it refers to trial, punishment, waiting.

But – and it’s a big but – also to salvation, redemption, reward.

What else is a trial after all but an adventure – a trip.

It isn’t the getting there that counts; it’s the journey. We’ve heard it so often it’s become a cliché. All the while we find ourselves surrounded by instances of the “getting there” very much counting. The triumphs and material successes of a life. The victories, the accomplishments, the results;  the journey metaphor for life has an  apparently global resonance.

We all know precisely where we’re going but we don’t want to talk about it. What we can never know is how we’ll get there which is what makes that a much more compelling topic of conversation. When you look at the big picture the cliché holds true. The journey, in fact, is all there is.

So I’ll take this opportunity – on this day that brings the number forty to mind – to wish you all the very best on your adventures. May your destination elude you and the journey enrich you.

Happy travels.

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  1. What is that silly quote about only being as old as we feel? I’ve got a different decade marker coming up in less than a month. But I’m too lazy to look up the significance of the number 🙂

  2. Great post, Robin! And happy birthday! While the number is definitely important, it’s more important how you feel and act. I just turned 33 a few days ago, and while I do feel old at times, I know I still act like I’m 23 at others (unfortunately the day after I feel like I’m 63, but that’s neither here nor there).

    Have a great celebration!

  3. Happy Birthday Robin! I knew 40 was a big number, but I didn’t realize it was epic big (as per your examples). Hope you have a great day that doesn’t involved wandering around deserts or anything of the sort for 40 days. P.S. As I get older, I get crankier too 🙂

  4. Happy Birthday! Birthdays are a big deal around our house- no matter what year. The journey of each year is so interesting and how it changes as we get older, as our priorities change and develop is also interesting. I really enjoyed this post, Robin.

  5. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, dammit! Luckily my other half will turn 40 before I will…he never gets upset about getting older so his grace in ageing will be an inspiration for me. We’re still a few years away from that but I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Wishing you a wonderful birthday filled with all the things that bring smiles to your face =)

  6. Wonderful post and Happy 40th. I love your quote above “The journey, in fact, is all there is.” You could not have said it better.

    Enjoy your Japanese old age 😉

  7. > “You’re the one that’s coming across like Jack Nicholson in The Shining“.

    I TOLD YOU! You gotta watch out for this shit or all of sudden you’re running around the cold, terrifying hedge maze (of life) like a crazy person. (Good lord, that is one of the ugliest sentences I have ever written…)

    Anyway, I think this whole age thing is so ridiculous. Why are we more concerned with losing youth than we are about celebrating what we have gained (wisdom, perspective, sexy Anderson cooper like gray hair)? I guess loss aversion is stronger than what-ever the opposite of loss-aversion is (I read that in Bloomberg, I think).

    My advice is to get out of the fetal position, dust your old self off and get over it. Of course, I am 35, so I have a certain “joi de vivre” that you may have lost.

    Kidding, of course. 🙂

  8. Oh, and Happy Fortieth. We would love to buy you a pint or forty.

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