IT MUST HAVE HAPPENED SOME TIME AGO, around the time that Fred Jüssi, the naturalist, pulled me aside in Tallinn and asked me how old I was. It was at a library. He had come to read from one of his favorite books. He must have known something was going on with me. But what was it?
“Thirty-five,” I told him. I was at the time.
Jüssi has a solid countenance — you could chisel that old face into rock — but when I answered him, he winced a bit, as if I had shown him a flesh wound. “Thirty-five?” he said. “That’s tough.”
When I asked him why, he gave me his rundown on life. “The thirties are hard on everybody, but they are especially hard on men,” said the venerable Jüssi. “At some time during this decade, you will reach your murdeiga — breaking point.” He clasped me on the shoulder with a heavy hand.
“Breaking point?” It sounded ominous. “What does that mean?”
“Everything that once mattered to you will soon become meaningless,” said Jüssi. “And suddenly things that meant nothing to you will become the most important to you and mean a great deal.”
With that Fred released his stone grip and headed along on his way. Jüssi is in his eighties now. He knows.
I think of Jüssi’s words now that I am on the other side of this imaginary breaking point. At least, I better be on the other side of it. It’s hard to even imagine or conceptualize such a break. A fissure in the ice? A fracture in the bone? A darkening horizon? Whatever it is, it makes sense. You begin life as an idealist or optimist, and so you remain, deep into your twenties, when decisions are made and paths selected.
By your mid-thirties though, there is a breaking down, a diminishing, an unraveling of the dreams. Reality trickles in with those first few gray hairs, those divorces and drama. You live through it, true, maybe even feel tougher for weathering the storm. What is harder though is to see others, male and female, a little younger or older, entering their own eras of upheaval, their own hurricanes of discontent, and then being asked to take on the role of Jüssi, to grip them by the shoulders, give them the wise old man talk, tell them it will be all okay when nothing is for sure.
Each of my friends’ stories is different, but they do a share a common theme — a loss of interest, a diminishing appetite for life after some kind of setback. It is that awesome moment of awakening, arriving on time, as Jüssi said, in your mid-thirties when you learn what people are really capable of, that leaves only emotional devastation and confusion in its tsunami wake. With all great hopes dashed, life’s beautiful chaos floods in, sinking once reliable philosophies and belief systems. There is no faith anymore, there is only heavy water. It rushes in and commands you to swim in it.
This is the real breaking point, the breaking of the waves on the shore, that moment of clarity when you understand you absolutely must swim. You must. The only alternative is drowning, and we have seen too many people do just that. So you leave behind your old self, you suffer a tiny death, you must use muscles you never even knew existed only to propel yourself forward. There is a kind of majesty to these kinds of life changes and Jüssi’s words ring out true. Everything that once was was, and everything that will be will be. What else is there to do but swim on, happily.