Around 20 years ago – when such things were still a novelty, because not everything that could be nailed down had ‘Keep Calm’ written on it – I bought a notebook with a quote on the front. “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” it said – attributed to George Eliot.
I’ve learned a lot of things in the years since then (including the fact that George Eliot wrote no such thing). I’ve learned that it is, indeed, possible to transform your life – and that it’s never too late to do so. I’ve also learned that sometimes what feels like the most disastrous turns of events can turn out, in fact, to be a hidden blessing. And if anything embodies these two ideas right now, it’s surely Ed Balls’ appearance on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Now, I’m not saying that the sight of Ed Balls doing the Charleston while wearing dungarees and playing the ukulele has been worth the price of four more years of Tory rule (him dancing as The Mask, on the other hand…). But to see a man being given a whole new lease of life – being practically reinvented, no less – at the age of 49 has, for me, been utterly joyous. And a testament to not-George-Eliot’s words.
While Ed’s new life has begun at 49, my own began at 39. That was the year I started writing and selling comedy, the year I finally got on the property ladder and the year I met my partner – who I married this summer, at the tender age of 44.
I had had opportunities and chances at happiness before in life, of course. And in many ways, my life had been happy and fulfilling. But in a deep, in-my-belly way, I wasn’t content. I mistook anxiety and uncertainty for the dramatics of love, not realising that love should be, above all, a feeling of safety. And time and again, I ran from opportunities, or subconsciously self-sabotaged in order to stop them presenting themselves in the first place.
It wasn’t so much society’s glass ceiling that got in the way: it was a personal glass ceiling, one that I had created and one that put a limit on my own happiness, in so many areas of my life.
It’s a glass ceiling which I am only now, in my 40s, properly attempting to crack. And while it’s true that it can be hard to destroy our self-set, self-defeating boundaries later in life simply because they’ve been in place for so long, one advantage to doing it when we’re older is that in so many ways, we’re ripe for it.
Not just because old (or even middle) age feels like it’s coming at a rate of knots – so we’re all the more likely to be imbued with a sense of life being short – but because the older we get, the less likely we are to worry about what others think, and the less embarrass-able we tend to be. We feel more ‘in our skin’, and the more we are truly ourselves, the closer to happiness we’re likely to be.
Whatever the motivation, though, when you do start to change your life for the better, one downside is that you’re immediately flooded with regret: looking back at the choices you made, the paths you took, and seeing how your life could have been different, Sliding Doors-style. But the good thing about glass ceilings is that once you start to chip away at them, they do shatter.
And so the more you start to live your life as it was intended for you – in a more congruent, true-to-yourself way – the more that regret falls away. The past starts to matter less because, quite simply, the present moment matters more. And this happier present you have now could never have happened without all the twists and turns of sadness that preceded it.
There are still occasionally times for me when that sadness rears its head; when I fear that my happiness will be swept away from under me, because a part of me still doesn’t quite believe that it will last or that I deserve it. But I am learning to quieten that voice – and to replace it with one that says: I don’t care if it took 45 years to be this happy. What matters is that I’m happy now – and that I’m learning how to be happy for the next 45.
And who knows what the next 45 hold? Right now, I’m a newlywed, excited about this new chapter my husband and I have embarked upon. I’m a mentee on a women’s political mentoring scheme – because you’re never too old to be mentored, either – excited about the whole new world it is opening up to me. And former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is a ballroom dancer, memoir-ist and bona fide national treasure.
As a wise person (George Eliot?) once said: life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s also a jive, a waltz and a tango. It is a gift to be enjoyed and explored, and it doesn’t matter whether we decide to do that when we’re 39, 49 or 79 – all that matters is that we decide it at all. Because it’s never too late to be what you might have been. And that includes: happy.