So much lost and gained by middle age

Wonderful and treacherous contradictions await as we round the bend of our late 40s

Trim and elegant, her voice has the steady strength of a person who has worn life for 54 years. "Men," she says, "do not look at me any more. I don't feel I am sexually attractive." Those of middle age will briefly pause. In her small strings of words we can hear a hint of wistfulness and a whisper of melancholy. Something is lost. And yet the beauty of middle age is that so much is also gained.

Middle age - somewhere from late 40s to round about 60 - is confronting yet charming, fabulous yet fiendish. It sneaks up on us and snips away at our cells and self-esteem. It holds on to us by our love handles and won't let go. We don't want to look in the mirror but we can't bear not to. The new wrinkle like a bruise, the new line like a cruel cut. Hair disappears from the Indian head and then miraculously reappears on the shoulders. Alexander McCall Smith wrote beautifully of W.H. Auden's face, "famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe", but surely we are not there yet?

If you're middle-aged, it's possible you've also probably lost your spectacles again. Calm down, there they are, perched on your head. Now you can return to checking the fat content on the yogurt jar. Our favourite four-letter word is yoga, we fervently discuss diets as we once did The Doors and we own minor degrees in medicine which allow us to recite 10 ways to cut down your cholesterol even if you didn't want to know. We're passably vain, increasingly philosophical and remarkably aware. It's rather nice actually.

Miraculously, we're younger than our fathers were at the same age, yet older than we ever thought we'd become. In my 20s, I sniggered at the balding guy in the plane who forsook in-flight whiskey on grounds of hydration and lay back with a black sleeping mask over his eyes, like a temporarily retired Zorro.

Now I am him.

How did that happen? How did everyone become younger than us? What's with all this wind?

Some of us have been to our first facials and some to our first funerals. When you bury a peer, vincibility is upon you. A colleague, 51, with gentle sadness, tells me that death, like a worthless thief, has slipped into her brain. "It's a constant refrain. How will I die, sickness, hospitalisation, the moment I learn I am very ill, old age, loneliness." She is not alone. Birthdays, for some, are less fun now, for they see them more as a countdown than a celebration.

We almost don't need to read Atul Gawande and his brilliant Being Mortal for we can feel it. On the tennis court, a ball streaks by and my mind says "go" but my unmoving body only smirks at the instruction. But we're making our peace with middle age, accepting that time is like water into the earth, once gone, unretrieved. Yes, I can't move as fast but I play smarter tennis. Or at least I think so. Even as we physically diminish gently, elsewhere we rapidly grow.

When I ask my friends and colleagues about middle age, optimism swirls in my inbox. Of course, the knee aches, a mortgage weighs, a lost job scares and divorce at first is like being marooned. To start in love again is not impossible, only exhausting. Yet even as our dreams change - we can no longer be astronauts - life seems to have a fullness. Men my age are discovering cooking and women run marathons. On Thursday, a friend messages to ask if I want to join a trek to the base camp of Everest. We're figuring out that this is not an ending, just a start of something else.

Women I speak to feel liberated, as if they're done with role-playing and duty and being shackled to convention. A former advertising executive who now paints tells me she is doing precisely what she wants and doesn't require anyone's approval; a talented editor mails me to say "I don't really care what people think about me"; a marketing person simply insists she is more "confident".

We're cooler and calmer and if young people call us "old" then we reassure ourselves that some of them think Louis Armstrong walked on the moon (a young man told me this recently). We pause, and even grin a little, when we fill out forms and find we are eligible for age discounts. We've long figured out life is unfair - a friend who never smoked and hardly drank found himself with a heart condition - but we possess more solutions.

We know loss and defeat and careers stalled and idiot bosses and we've survived. No, better still, maybe we have found balance. The people of the erogenous zone but also of the ergonomic chair. A writer, just turned 50, sent me this lovely mail from Bangalore: "I am very comfortable with myself and very much more self-aware. I understand my strengths and weaknesses and I tend to address what isn't so great about myself. When I was younger I never did bother."

I find myself less scared of solitude and more in tune with Ogden Nash who wrote that "Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you." My heroes are old and wonderfully lined - the Rolling Stones evidently gather no moss - and as I listen to them I crave space to think.

There are too many classics I haven't read but too bloody bad, for now there's nothing we Have To Do in life. Except read Barbara Strauch's The Secret Life Of The Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents Of The Middle-Aged Mind. In an interview with the New York Times, she noted that in middle age we're better at "inductive reasoning and problem solving - the logical use of your brain and actually getting to solutions. We get the gist of an argument better. We're better at sizing up a situation and reaching a creative solution".

Of course, we knew all that.

Maybe we've figured out that happiness can be redefined as we go along and it is contentment anyway that is obtainable. A life just more meaningful. In the mirror we squint not just at the unflinching invasion of grey but also, hopefully, at how we've measured up as human beings.

Of all things spoken to me on middle age, I will carry this for a while: A colleague told me she isn't interested in the size of your pay cheque or the glint of your car. She wants to know, is there kindness within you, do you wear compassion? By now, hopefully, we see life beyond our own small selves. If we haven't learnt this by middle age, it's getting late. By now, with less time before us than behind, we have to be better than we were when we started.

And so on we tread, tired some days, victorious on others, gym bag on shoulder, pill box in pocket. Some days we sit with our adult children who are stocked with ideas and suffused with energy and we feel triumph and yet also our age. Some days we call on our mothers, 82, who peer through sizeable glasses and examine our receding hairlines and tut-tut at the swell of a paunch. "You're not old," they say with a smile. Only when we go home, you see, do even the middle-aged reclaim a little of their youth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'So much lost and gained by middle age'. Print Edition | Subscribe