The Weight of 10,000 Rainbows: Thoughts on Turning 40

We each know more than we can say. There is a certain elusive “what it’s like”-ness to human experience that is nearly impossible to utter. After all, our consciousness, while not ephemeral, isn’t exactly tangible either. How would you describe it to an unconscious yet thinking machine?

“The inside of my head feels as wide as the sky and is filled with 10,000 rainbows.”

Philosophers call the ineffable “what-it’s-like”-ness of experience qualia. The classic example is the redness of an apple, which is something over and above the wavelength of the photons striking your eye or the stirring of electrical impulses in your nerves. A cascading voltage potential is NOT joy, or pain, or humor, but it mediates those things just as air molecules carry sound or radio waves carry music.

Consciousness then is a froth, a persistent emergence from the many minuscule implosions and rarefactions of the brain. And as your brain goes, so goes the mind it creates.

In a few days, I will turn 40. I am not upset by this. Birthdays are fun, and you can do nothing but ruin the moment by dwelling on the grand ebb of your existence. Another year has passed and you’re still alive. Fucking enjoy it!

The closest thing to a middling life crisis came for me on my 29th birthday. Staring at the end of my third decade, I felt beguiled by life, like it had tricked me, like I had awoken into a Pink Floyd song. No one told me when to run! I missed the starting gun.

So I went and jumped out of an airplane. Not bad as celebrations go. Certainly I got what I wanted: an explosion of life-affirming feels. It was amazing, not least because at 29 there was no difference between having a life and being alive.

Being alive is the medium of an intangible something — we call it a life — in the same way that air is the medium of sound and brains are the medium of minds. A life is an emergent property of the persistent act of living. You just can’t see it.

The other day, my family asked me what I learned in forty years. I couldn’t answer. Yet my head was filled with the “what-its-like”-ness of having a life, something I did not have before. It’s a sensation similar to the feelings stirred by an old song: you know it when you feel it but it’s never quite articulable — a tiny cut on the roof of your mind that you just can’t quite reach with your tongue.

At 40, I have a sense of what it’s like to have a life, and not just to be in possession of one, but of what you can and can’t do with it, of the particular shape and peculiar flavor of my own, of its finiteness, of what will and won’t fit inside, of its infungibility, of its misapplication, of its terminal condition — which is all entirely different than the feeling of being alive.

Unfortunately I have no particular gift for expressing that sense, and so I can’t communicate to you what I’ve learned. Like the taste of that old song, it’s something best left for poets, which I am not.

Confucius said,  “At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the will of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right.”

Perhaps that’s what he meant by no more doubts, that he’d finally got a handle on this life thing and now it was just a matter of becoming an expert. I don’t know. What do you think?

I can only say this: whatever else it is, life is fucking short. Live it such that at the end — be that 45 or 90 — you can bear the ineffable “what-it’s-like”-ness of your 10,000 rainbows to your own satisfaction.

Iran (2011) - illustration by Tavis Coburn for The New York Times
illustration by Tavis Coburn for The New York Times