A congregation member and I were chatting about learning a new language as an adult. He said there’s a proverb in Japan to the effect that what you haven’t learned by forty, you’re not going to learn.

Interestingly, I had been reflecting on what I’ve been doing over the past several years, going back a ways before forty: deliberately taking on the challenge of things that scare me. I didn’t take them on for the sake of the challenge itself, but in pursuit of some other goal, but along the way I had to, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, do the thing I thought I could not do. They have built on each other, the knowledge of having done one giving me courage to do the next.

Ending an unhappy marriage (age 35). Necessary and excruciating, like doing an amputation on myself. Like walking through fire because going into and through the pain was the only way to get beyond it. When, three years later, my doula asked me to prepare for childbirth by thinking of a time I found the resources to do something I didn’t think I could do, this is what I thought of.

Giving birth (age 38). Longed-for but also very frightening. I’m still awed that I did it. I love this poem about that amazing power, that another church member shared to start a Committee on Ministry meeting, making me want to shout “Yes!”

first steps, Alexis O’Toole (Creative Commons license)

Speaking Spanish to native speakers (age 41). Learning Spanish in class, which I began to do at about age 40, was not particularly difficult and not at all scary. What I wondered was whether I’d have the courage to try out my novice Spanish when we then lived in Mexico for six months. I knew I’d learn more Spanish, and enjoy myself more, if I dared to speak to people—dared, in short, publicly to do something I wasn’t very good at. To my surprise, I dove right in with few qualms. Was I getting braver? It appeared so.

Drawing (age 41). A fear of drawing had paralyzed me for 25 years. Whatever freedom I apparently felt as a young child, when I said I was going to be an artist, had been shriveled by fear by the time of my first semester of college, when I took a drawing class and procrastinated on every assignment. I was terrified. When I planned my “sabbatical of art” for 2010, I intended mostly to make abstract collages, but I assigned myself one drawing class with the aim of putting some of this fear behind me. Not only did the fear fall away, but I fell in love with drawing. For the first time in my memory, I loved to draw. It is still a little intimidating to face the subject and the blank paper, to feel my inadequacy to convey what I see with a piece of charcoal, but I have been drawing every week ever since, and I always look forward to it.

Writing and preaching (age approximately 40, and ongoing). As drawing became a source of joy instead of dread, I asked myself whether I could shift writing in the same way. I had already been getting bolder in my writing and preaching, and then the revelations of my sabbatical accelerated the process. That’s the subject for a longer post focused just on preaching. For now I’ll just say: I could already write, but my sermon writing has taken on a whole new dimension in recent years for reasons that can be summarized as more guts.

And now, at age 44, I am doing something else: Learning to be a supervisor. I became head of staff—UUCPA’s first in I don’t know how long—when I got back from sabbatical in fall 2010, but I and the church still have a lot to learn. That’s scary to admit, even though I preached about the merits of “beginner’s mind” in my very first sermon as UUCPA’s minister. I really like the model that Susan Beaumont is teaching in the seminar I’m in right now, and it both fits UUCPA well, and draws on and develops gifts that I have. I’m looking forward to bringing it back and, over the next few years, adding performance management to the list of things I once didn’t know how to do, and was afraid I couldn’t do, until I began doing them and loving them.

Sometimes we do learn new things at forty.