I had a birthday this week. Normally I would not mention it in this kind of public space. I hesitate to do so even now lest anyone think that I’m fishing for extra birthday attention. I’m not.
That said, I turned 41 on Thursday. The fact is relevant to this post because it is an important mile marker. Here I am with both feet in middle age and the theme of my thoughts is this: the siren song of age is a funeral dirge for all that is not.
It seems to me that the older we get, the more we have to lament. All that is lost, all that has died, and all that was dreamed but never begun grows in our minds and memories. While there is a good and proper place for grief, regret and nostalgia are the lyrics and melody to a treacherous song — bewitching in beauty but deceptive in the end.
I have been reading Homer’s Odyssey recently and I am stuck on the image of Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship as they pass the place where the sirens sing. His crew have tied him there to keep him from jumping in the water and swimming towards the enchanted music. They, meanwhile, are rowing hard with earplugs in, knowing that the song is a trap. Anyone who listens and turns towards the sirens will be crushed on the rocks below them. The end of their song is only death. Odysseus, so close to home, listened to the siren song and longed more for that deceptive sweetness than for the real boat below him, the real crew who protected him, or the real promise of home still ahead of him. What a great mercy his men obeyed his command to tie him to the mast and plug their ears to both the music and his cries.
For those of us sailing through these middle years of life, the temptation to swim back through memory and dreams is strong. The temptation to linger over lost hopes pulls us like magic music. But to turn and linger is peril. It’s one sure way to shipwreck a life.
There is, however, a countermelody. The only good answer I know to the siren dirge is to sing a song of all that IS — to rejoice in the Real and the Good. Feel the oar in your hands, the boat beneath you, the wind in your face, and row all the harder for home. For even that which is difficult is better than that which doesn’t exist.