In almost two weeks, I will turn forty. Just writing those words feels deeply surreal. How can I feel like I was twenty years old last week and also feel like I was sixty years old yesterday?
Our culture places an immense amount of external pressure on milestone birthdays. The label alone exudes a not-so-subtle pressure. Aren’t all birthdays a milestone? Isn’t every year we draw breath a chance to celebrate showing up in this universe and doing our best to understand and embrace who we are and what we can contribute?
Maybe that’s too idealistic. Maybe it’s not at all. Maybe it’s more real and potent than any ‘milestone birthday’ could be.
Regardless of May 14th being a single day on the calendar, I will wholeheartedly admit I feel the cultural pressure. I feel the tension between loving what is and longing for more. As much as I love my life itself, my current life situation is not what I envisioned it would be at this age. That’s a hard sentence to write, let alone publish. But then again, it’s a real, raw feeling. One part of me laments and longs and yet the old soul self knows no year has been what I anticipated. Why apply unnecessary pressure to this particular age when opening myself up to what is meant for me is so much better than anything I could ever plan?
The Old Soul
So here’s a place, in part, where I feel sixty. Old soul has been a frequent description of me since I can remember. My mother referred to me as ‘an old soul with the endless curiosity of a child.’ She wondered why I asked so many questions, why I was a relentless explorer, and why I never settled for the first response. (Follow-up questions have always held a special space in my heart.) She also admittedly grew frustrated when she realized I cared more about the questions themselves than any answer I could find. Even now, questions are a significant way in which I connect, engage, learn, and love.
There are countless reasons why the old soul label has stuck over the years but none of them really matter. I think we use that phrase a lot when someone doesn’t seem to easily fit within a particular dynamic of which our society declares they should for whatever reason. There is nothing unusual about being an old soul just like there is nothing unusual about being a young soul. We all have our place in this life; let’s stop putting pressure on ourselves and each other for rushing or slowing down whatever is meant for us to learn and evolve. If there is one thing I’ve discovered as I embark upon my forties, it is that ‘shoulds’ are worthless and sabotage our courage.
Old soul aside, I felt twenty years old last week simply because I believe in joyful abandon. I have noticed that when we lean into joy—even in the darkest of nights—we find laughter in unlikely moments, we create fun in unlikely places, and we no longer need to chase thrills outside of ourselves. We can learn to cultivate the thrill from within in the way we show up…for absolutely anything. Abandoning oneself to joy opens up a landscape of possibility and purpose. We no longer have to ‘wait’ or 'hustle' for our life situation to improve, lighten, or evolve to really live. Joy is a powerful emotion and perhaps the most courageous one. I’m still learning this practice in a big way but the willingness to step forward with abandon into the landscape of joy when our life situation isn’t ideal is a powerful act of bravery.
So, what does this have to do with Rising?
In many success stories—big or small—there is a time period called the rising. It is the space between our fall and when we are standing strong again, unapologetically in our power on sacred ground. It is commonly the time we like to rush through when telling or hearing our stories. It is also the chapters which land on the cutting room floor in films because we like to fast-track to the hero’s ending. Simply put, we like to rest in the universal assurance that every fall can be overcome. We just don’t want to engage much in the details of how a fall is overcome. ‘Give me the highlight reel,’ we say. ‘Give me the catastrophic fall and the triumphant success.’
Brené Brown’s fabulous book, Rising Strong, describes the rising process beautifully, breaking it down into three parts: the reckoning, the rumbling, and the revolution. If you are in the midst of a fall or a rise, I urge you to pick up this book. And if you’re standing solidly upon ground after a fall but still feel a bit unbalanced in yourself and don’t know why, again, I urge you to pick up this book. It will give you space to explore your own rising process in a self-compassionate and conscious way.
The rising is primarily why I felt sixty years old yesterday. As you may know, I fell and hurt my spine 11 years ago. I have been stumbling and rising ever since. I am not yet standing strong and tall. I am in the messy, brutiful middle; the space between.
After several setbacks since last December, I am slowly regaining my strength. Some days I can move with only a mediocre amount of pain and discomfort; other days I feel like I’m back on the ground again, trying to get up yet another time.
A former athlete and theater performance artist before all this began, there are days I miss the old version of my body more than I’d like to admit. Maybe it’s that cultural pressure raring up again but I miss my old athleticism, size six jeans, boots with actual heels, and the daily agility to embark on fun adventures without thinking twice about the physicality involved. I could also do without the endless comments about my current body size, the confidence I should (or shouldn’t) have as a curvy woman, and the labels and boxes placed upon me when I take up more space, the soft places more visible than the toned ones.
I felt sixty years old yesterday in body and spirit as I visited my doctor for spine injections to tighten the ligaments to help reinforce the bone structure. I’ve been undergoing this procedure for a while now and it has truly saved my mobility. Like most visits, I was the youngest patient in the clinic by twenty years yesterday. And I paid my 574th $35 co-pay.
Despite the common feelings of desiring to spend Friday afternoon somewhere else, joyful abandon was there too. We laughed hard throughout the visit, we joked hard too. And I received yet another hug from a physician who is like family, diligently collaborating with me to strengthen my body and reach deep within my mind to keep going, to keep rising. We all have our challenges in this life; each one a unique arena for us to show up and to do hard things. This just happens to be one of mine.
The Messy Middle
Maybe you’re hanging out in a clinic on a Friday afternoon too. Maybe you’re not there for yourself but there for someone you love. Or maybe you’re working hard for something to change—in your life, your health, yourself. Maybe you are 20, or 40, or maybe you are 60, or perhaps 80 years old and as feisty as ever. Wherever you are as you’re reading this, I’m sure you can agree that the messy middle is hard. It asks the unspeakable of us. It requires the practice of courage in ways I’m personally still learning to embrace. And it is deeply challenging—for me at least—to write clearly and openly about it; the ability to illuminate this part of the rising strong adventure in an unabashed, real, and unapologetic way is difficult without fear of falling into unconscious patterns or unhealthy desires of seeking affirmation and safety from external sources or random strangers on the interwebs. Belonging only comes from within—we must first belong to ourselves to belong anywhere else. As Joseph Campbell outlines, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is full of surprises, brilliant awakening, deep isolation and loneliness, and harrowing terrain as we come to realize who we really are.
At nearly forty years old, I love who I am but wholeheartedly know I am also still learning who I am. I am still learning what I am made of. I am still learning my strength. I am still learning my beauty. I am still learning how to lean into joy with complete abandon no matter the life situation or circumstance. I am still learning how to call upon my courage. I am still learning how to share my story. I am still learning to explore, to ask questions, and to release ever knowing the answer. I am still learning how to show up as an old soul with the curiosity of a child. My ‘success story,’ if you will, hasn’t been written and wrapped—it is being written right now, in this moment. And it will stay in draft form for as long as I live; the true triumph is not only in the ending, it is in the journey—the practice—itself.
My coaching business, The Courage Practice, for example, wasn’t started by a thirty-something-year-old woman who learned all about how to practice, achieved a successful ending, and is now creating space for others to do the same. Rather, it was born within the heart of my own practice where I remain knee-deep now even as I write this to you. Quite simply, The Courage Practice exists because I know how important it is to hold space, bear witness to, and champion the practice of courage in life’s arena for others who also find themselves in the heart of the practice. I love nothing more than partnering with individual heroes on their own journey, particularly in that glorious space between called the rising.
As I reflect on forty at this corner coffee shop table, I recover from a brutiful physical therapy session. The sweat at my temples is just beginning to dry. I passed a few of my weekly goals and missed a few. Someday I hope to climb mountains again. But first I need to climb this one.
I would never have chosen this life situation, yet I am somehow so grateful for this life. Maybe that truth is the real milestone I am to celebrate this May 14th.
Tomorrow I’ll rise again. Tomorrow I’ll sweat again. Tomorrow I’ll practice again.
Maybe you can relate to this, maybe you cannot. We all have our stories. I hope somehow this inspires you to look inward at your own for a moment and celebrate how far you’ve come. Wherever you are in your own practice, I see you and am with you in spirit.
Keep rising, friend.
About the Author:
A leadership and life coach for 12 years and founder of The Courage Practice, Tonyalynne Wildhaber coaches leaders, life warriors, coaches, and soulful entrepreneurs to make friends with their courage, integrate wisdom with strategy, step into their highest potential, and transform their success and life. Tonyalynne is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Thrive Global, is head-over-heels in love with the Pacific Northwest, and currently attempting to train a dog named Ollie.
Author images photographed by Arianna Bradford Photography.