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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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