“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
“It’s started! My body’s starting to die!” Those thoughts flashed through my mind when, at the age of 30, I noticed that one of my front teeth had simply up and died. Irreversibly. For the first time it hit me that, as Aristotle pointed out, I am a man and all men are mortal, and … well, you take it from there.
More than three decades on, a blog post on the theme of aging got me thinking: the signs of getting old can be a spur to new adventures. That seems a better way to view it.
My own mother had been a shining example in the last months of her life. Diagnosed with a terminal cancer, she seemed to grow in peace and grace as the illness consumed her physical energy. My siblings and I felt ourselves in awe as her spirit expanded with each passing day. Somehow, the approach of death had moved her to a new level. How different, I thought, from others I had known who grew bitter by the same measure.
On much less demanding aspects of aging, I’ve noticed that I often gain something new as each part of my body loses its shine. My own good doctor has helped with this. A man of my own age, he eschews pharmaceutical solutions where possible. He also has an annoying habit of co-opting my complaints. I went to him with a sleep problem – an “inevitable sign of aging.” His response: “If you’re playing computer solitaire at 3AM, look for me online and we can play together.” Instead, I tried a biofeedback clinic and got a lot more than I bargained for. Using the biofeedback technology, I was able to reduce my overall stress levels. At the clinic, I met a world-class peak-performance trainer, and learned new breathing techniques to increase my heart-rate variability. It turns out increased HRV is a key marker for reduced mortality – not to mention increased willpower. It was an exciting and useful discovery.
That was not last dose of my doctor’s empathy. “Doctor, I’m really tired of late. Do you think I need testosterone?” He humoured me by running a test. His prescription? “You should try some volunteering. Nothing like feeling useful to keep you alive.” That was how I ended up mentoring new immigrants, a fantastic experience that’s still developing.
On my last visit to the doctor’s office, I was complaining about the lingering pain in my shoulders, brought on by a game of trampoline dodge-ball months earlier at the local “extreme air park.” (Was the name a tip-off?) “Yeah,” he said, “that shoulder pain really messes up my tennis serve. But try strengthening the muscles in your back.” So, I spent a few sessions with a personal trainer to develop a new travel-friendly exercise regime to add to my “Younger Next Year” program. Not only are my shoulders in much better shape, but I’m starting to feel “buff”.
My aging libido has been a huge source of new experiences. I was naïve enough to think that being slower to “get it up” might at least lead to more endurance. Not. This time I knew I could probably get a little blue pill from my doctor, but I opted for looking into some massage training and even some Tantra. These areas turned out to be rich areas for fun and exploration, for both Cheryl and me. Pursuing these activities also led me to find a great personal development coach (who became a friend), as well as joining a men’s support group, also a new and life-altering experience. Even starting my bucket list grew out of this quest to compensate for dropping testosterone levels.
Another complaint as we age is how we lose our friends. At first, they just become less active and available; later, we lose them for good. When Cheryl and I noticed that it was getting harder to get our friends out hiking, we joined an outdoor club, leading to many more friends, and brand new adventures.
I sense a pattern. If we embrace each challenge that aging brings, and rise to meet it, rather than settle for an ever-shrinking life, we can grow in new directions as long as we can still take another breath. I know I’ve yet to be hit with the really big challenges of aging, like the one my mother surfed so well. When I am, with her example, and through practice with the smaller challenges, I hope to do half as well as she did.
For now, I’m grateful to benefit from the upsides of the smaller aging setbacks, to see the possibility in each new skill I need to learn in order to battle entropy.
My current quest to create a post-retirement career has proven a challenging one. May it prove rich as well. I recently started working with a counselor to see if I could move things forward faster. A top local hypnotherapist, this woman is a “poster child” for what’s possible career-wise. Well into her 80s, she’s one of the City’s top practitioners in a field she only entered after retiring from teaching at 65. I’m now working on transcending some lifelong beliefs I’ve held that have likely been a drag on my career success. Once again, a crisis of aging is pushing me into exciting new territory.
There’s a playful side too. One area we identified for growth was exercising my creative muscle, and in particular, the operation of my corpus callosum, that part of the brain that coordinates the left and right hemispheres. One of the best ways to build up your corpus callosum is to learn some new dance steps. So, after years of putting it off, I signed up both my left feet for weekly lessons in Latin Funk dance. I’m loving it! My new shoulders are holding out, too. And, although the instructor is male, most of my classmates are not. All those Latin-swinging hips aren’t bad for the aging libido either.