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Turning Forty — Notes from the Editor

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Turning Forty

The other day, while here in Boston, I turned forty years old. I remembered when I was twenty-five years old and went out to chant Hare Krsna with my fellow devotees on the Boston Commons. Once a heckler shouted at us: “You kids better quit this while you can! Or else one of these days you’ll wake up and find yourself forty years old and your life will be wasted!” Today it reminded me of “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What if I had taken a different, more traveled road when I was twenty-five? If I hadn’t met my spiritual master and become Krsna conscious, would I have continued with my old job at the welfare office and gone up a few notches in the civil service? Or would I have become a college English professor? Married with a few children? Maybe I would have become famous and wealthy, though I doubt it. It’s impossible to know what might have been. But I tend to think that if I had become anything other than a Krsna devotee, the thought of being forty would concern me more than it does.

Out of curiosity, I took out some books about what people feel like upon reaching middle age. “By forty, the outsides of most bodies (even the most carefully preserved bodies) are, to put it bluntly, visibly beginning to crumble under the assault of the years.” Of course, it was no secret that my physical powers, like any forty-year-olds, are diminishing, and more wrinkles are starting to appear on my face. “A good way to define middle age is that it is the time when you must stop taking your body for granted and start taking care of it instead.” I also noticed that I wasn’t able to keep up dancing during a chanting session like some of the seventeen-year-olds. “No other age group is as well fitted for the task of accepting power and assuming social and personal responsibility as the middle-aged.” Yes, on the positive side, I saw I was gaining more influence in my own world: now I’m the editor of a magazine, whereas when I first joined this movement I was cleaning the pots. But I wasn’t aware, until I read a few books on middle-age psychology, that with the onset of the forties a crisis often occurs. A person feels terribly bored with what he is doing, even in the midst of a promising career: he is suddenly tired of his wife and family and may whimsically get divorced. One writer was comparing middle age to adolescence, and he coined the word “middlescence” for this period of rebellion and emotional stress. The middlescent Forty feels that nobody understands him; he is continually on the lookout for greener pastures; grieving over his physical degeneration, he often turns into a hypochondriac. Even well-wishing friends cannot bring him around. He desperately thinks, “What am I doing here? What have I done? And now how am I going to manage to get out of it? I feel trapped!”

Mental health experts say people over forty are often over-concerned about death. It seems that the death fear tends to be worse in the early forties. According to one psychologist, by the time one enters old age, “the worry about dying has been refiled into its customary pigeonhole at the back of the mind.” Morbid fear of death is another part of the middle-age crisis.

But according to the path I’m on in Krsna consciousness, thinking “I’m forty now” is just a game—because my body is not my real self. The body’s turning forty, fifty, or sixty effects no change at all on the eternal self, the spirit soul. As Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-gita,

Only the material body of the indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal living entity is subject to destruction…. For the soul there is never birth or death.

When a person thinks of himself as an adolescent or a middle-ager, there are so many concomitant anxieties. But in Krsna consciousness we transcend material identification, even during this lifetime. This is not a mental invention, but a factual realization: I am not my body; I am pure spirit soul, part and parcel of Krsna. Armed with transcendental knowledge, the devotee experiences none of the crises of middle age.

Take, for example, the middle-age death crisis. Psychologists recommend that a forty-year-old make a healthy adjustment: after all, he’s actually got a good chance of living twenty to forty more years. But is this the real solution to the middleager’s death fear? Degeneration is a signal of oncoming death. Filing it in the back of the mind won’t help us avoid death when it comes. But death can be conquered. Adolescence, middlescence, old age, disease, death—all our problems come from the body. By the transcendental knowledge of Krsna consciousness, we can gain freedom from the bodily encagement. If we revive our original love of God, then at the demise of the material body, the spirit soul will enter eternal life.

So it has come to pass, as the Commons heckler warned me. I have turned forty in Krsna consciousness. Maybe the heckler was really trying to help me. He wanted me to lead what he thought was a normal life and improve my lot. But without transcending the bodily concept of life, the problems of middlescence, old age, disease, and death are still the real problems of life. In fifteen years of Krsna consciousness I have found the solution to these problems. It’s the chanting of Hare Krsna that “has made all the difference.”—SDG

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