The charms in middle age

Not getting richer, but having a better life

MIDDLE AGE (after 40 or thereabout) is the biological time to stop, and try to recall where you have been and where you are now heading. It's a half-way stage if you think you deserve to live to be, say, 80.

I'm not sure if I can live to that age. I'm now in my late 50s in the new millennium, so I reckon I have passed my “youthful” middle age and am now in the “high” middle age. (In European history, the High Middle Ages commenced around 900 AD with a flowering of new ways of life and attitudes around the courts, the cathedrals and universities, and the commercial cities.)

Most stories have a beginning, a muddle and an ending. In life, we just muddle through, in a kind of auto mode, “just like when you're driving you suddenly come back to consciousness after ten miles of blank scenery, unable to remember anything about the road,” says the author of a recent novel on middle-age love life.

It requires a personal shock to wake us up – a death in the family, an unexpected illness or the loss of a long-term job. It must be an event that hits us badly.

(Don’t believe newspaper reports about people who said they began their spiritual awakening after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the New York World Trade Centre. Unless they have loved ones who were killed there, what they said was just to sound good to the interviewer and the reader. We’re all self-centered creatures, and if an event – no matter how earthshaking -- doesn’t affect us personally, we don’t really care. But so as not to appear callous, we make sympathetic tongue clicking – tsk, tsk – to simulate that we care, even if we don’t.)

Taking stock of the past

My intellectual and moral values first took shape from my father – an emigrant from China. From him I learnt the virtue of hard work, the value of money which was difficult to come by in early modern Singapore, and the redemption of a life of toil and poverty through education, knowledge and marketable skills.

Education and knowledge can and will lift a man from the bondage of physical but unremunerative labour. Knowledge is acquired in many ways, and not always in the classroom. In fact as I grow older, its acquisition has become a purposeful, enjoyable pursuit. Learning, I discovered, is fun.

And rewarding too. I remember my godmother, an energetic woman in her early sixties who set out to learn conversational Malay. Like most women coming out of China in the pre-war years she had little education and spoke only one language, her native Hakka tongue. As a child of eight or nine, I used to sit besides her in those balmy tropical evenings 40 years ago, and watched her listen to short Malay conversational lessons on Radio Malaya.

She would concentrate on the phrases and faithfully repeat after the speaker. Within six months she had an elementary grasp of the vernacular and within a year she could carry on a speakeasy with Malay housewives at the early morning market.

Taking stock of work

I don’t kid myself that there is lifetime job security. The only security for anyone is a fair amount of personal saving sufficient to tide over at least two years of a sudden loss of income. And if I should be axed from my present job – not unlikely in Singapore's badly-managed economy – I'm prepared to simplify my life and reduce my wants. As the ancient Chinese said: When your horse died, get down and walk.

Losing your job when you're middle-aged can be scary because it is unlikely you will ever get another job with the same level of salary and perks. In fact, you may never ever be employed again. From the employers' point of view, they would rather hire a young person who is cheap, enthusiastic and obediant, not someone older, slower and stiff-necked.

Let me repeat this for the benefit of all middle-agers and potential middle-agers: In the current recession-haunted world (whether Singapore, America or Japan), losing your job, like losing your hair, is likely be a permanent state of affairs.

Your only fallback are the remnants of your savings. If it is not too late, get rid of long-term financial commitments immediately and start saving as much as you possibly can. Keep cash, forget about buying stocks or making other investments, and – Heaven forbids – purchasing a house!

Wisdom, not cynicism

For many pople, middle age brings a world-weary cynicism. This attitude is terrible. Cynical people are tedious people – they see the bitter side of situations and other individuals. I know many former middle-aged colleagues (no, I don’t want them as friends) who are overweight, floppy and sour-mouthed. They think most people are bad and expect the worst – and they’re usually right!

For me, middle age brings a new, sharp hunger for knowledge, a desire to read and learn for pleasure and inward satisfaction. I wished I had this as a schoolboy so that at the very least I could have achieved better grades.

Wisdom comes from contemplative reading, husbanding new and useful ideas from books, sharing them with like-minded friends, and putting them into practice. If what you read and learn remain only ideas that you chew over and over, you are little wiser than a cow, and according to Tibetan lamas, likely to reborn as one.

I have started collecting good books – and reading them. This is an important distinction between owning books and possessing them through the pleasurable labour of reading.

Thomas de Quincey in his eminently readable Confessions of an English Opium Eater, mentions his own library of 5,000 books as an adjunct to happiness. Likewise, the collecting and reading of good books is a serious, pleasurable pursuit for me. It is “serious” in the sense that I don’t treat my books as trivial or ornamental. I read and re-read them. And I red-line compelling passages, a well-turned phrase or simply any text that caught my fancy. I am particular too about the physical aspects of books that I bought -- they must be hardbound, with clean, clear type, preferably printed on acid-free cream or off-white paper..

What knowledge in books do I hunger for? For matters on eventful human lives, history (particularly on China and Medieval Europe), philosophy, old poetry, 19th Century literature, and Buddhist thoughts and practices. Thankfully, I have been cured of superstition and patently-false subjects like fundamentalist Middle-East religions, astrology, ghosts, UFOs, fengshui and snake medicine (a.k.a. health supplements). The Buddha stresses the importance of right view and right understanding for the awakened individual, whose mind is not be fogged by religion, ideology and Star Wars.

Mature desires
Middle age also brings a range of mature desires and the means to satisfy some of them. It has been a journey of self-discovery to know myself and what I truly want. I've acquired, for example, a heightened appreciation of all things beautiful and aching – the freshness of flowers on a midsummer hillside, the time-mossed stones of an old city lane, the dream-sweet face of a young girl, the glow of a Van Gough, and the heft of a well-bound book.

It is an unslakable drive of the heart to possess the charms and loveliness existing in the world, whether they be a landscape, a female form or a book.

Francis Chin, first published in The Straits Times, September 7, 1990
re-written & revised August 31, 2003.

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Vietnamese lady in traditional costume