The year I turned fifty I thought I had testicular cancer. The year I turned sixty I began having lower back attacks. Between then and now, my blood sugars have risen, both my hearing and my eyesight have worsened, my knees sometimes give out on me when I'm climbing stairs, and there have been days I feel too stiff to chase a ball with my granddaughters.
At least I'm not alone. A few years ago Jean and I attended a dinner party where we were the youngest couple by at least ten years. As everyone arrived and began asking each other how they were, we heard a litany of physical complaints, from surgeries to hearing loss to things you might not think appropriate for a dinner party. Then one of our friends looked across the room at Jean and me, her face filled with compassion. "You'd better get used to this," she said, kindly. "This is the new social custom before dinner. It's called the ''organ recital."
To build up my resistance to joining them any time soon, I began buying books to help me get my own aging body back on track. Among them was, "Younger Next Year." Written by a medical doctor and a motivational fitness guy, the book promised to reverse the aging process through diet and fitness. They emphasized weightlifting over cardio-vascular exercises. I had just bought an elliptical machine but I went out and bought an exercise bench as well, with a set of dumbbells. The cash outlay was serious, so I assumed my commitment to my new program would be serious as well. But there is a special room in heaven for all those good intentions we thought would take us there, wherever we end up ourselves.
With each inevitable diminishment of my physical strength and capability, I have noticed a flagging of my self-confidence as well. I grew hesitant to go hiking in the summer, fearing a fall. I began adding warming layers in the winter, battling the effects of slower circulation. I chose to stay indoors more and more of the time, building a life around activities I could do from my study or in my studio.
When my back was at its worst, crippling me with muscle spasms that confined me to bed where I had to lie still, not moving, for days at a time, I contemplated the quality of my life. How long could I live like this before deciding that such a life was not worth living? I understood, through the clutch of fear I felt in my own heart, why people suffering from chronic pain (I'd met many during my years as a pastor) would consider Medical Assistance In Dying rather than allowing nature to take its own, slow, torturous course.
But then, small breakthroughs began hinting at a more hopeful future. Yes, my body was becoming less reliable. Yes, care and caution were required where I used to be carefree. But it turned out I didn't have testicular cancer. By addressing my blood sugar problem I lost weight and that, along with a daily exercise regime, seems to have calmed my lower back muscles. Not only do I hike in the summer, I camp too--on the ground, in a tent. It appears I'm not done yet. Chastened, humbled, careful, but not done.
Aging is what we make of it. It's either the beginning of the end, in which case we might as well start shutting ourselves down, or, it's a new beginning, meaning we can open ourselves up to new possibilities. I prefer the second. And so does Judy Steiert, who I interviewed for this week's episode of The Mystic Cave. She's an "Age-ing to Sage-ing" trainer and advocate who helps people age both consciously, alert to all the changes in our bodies and minds, and positively, celebrating what we can of a life well lived.
The shift in perspective we gain by such an approach to aging allows us to discover that we still have something to offer the world. I may not be "younger next year" but chances are, I'll be wiser. Reviewing my life, repairing what wounds I can, becoming conscious of my limits and my mortality, learning to "be" rather than necessarily to "do"--I am perhaps more fully myself in these years than ever before. All of which makes me want to hang around ... until it's over.
To listen to my conversation with Judy Steiert, just press the Play button below: