Higher Living Reflections

Like I Used To

As I’ve aged, I’ve wryly commented on, as you might have about your own, my diminishing physical capabilities, plaintively decrying I can’t do such and such—running, skiing, climbing—like I used to. And like you might’ve, I’ve occasionally spouted George Bernard Shaw’s lament that youth is wasted on the young.

Our bodies usually peak in our mid to late twenties. By our early thirties, muscle starts to weaken, and the hard work of staying fit becomes increasingly challenging. And from then on, it’s an exercise to exercise, an inexorable decline with the going getting tougher as our capabilities ebb.

Like every living being, we humans have a shelf life. Though I can’t speak for other sentient beings, I believe that as we mature, like them, we grow wiser. In conjunction with that, our perspective and attitude about our abilities and interests usually grow. For those relishing and thriving on physical activity, dedication to keeping fit and maintaining strength deepens. But paradoxically, that mature attitude sets in shortly after our physical growth spurt ends and our bodies begin to decline. Then, as we approach forty— the dreaded marker for middle age—fear sets in because we know we’re at the point when unpleasant stuff—e.g., bifocals—seriously kicks in, and we have become keenly aware that people eventually die. The coup de grâce is that we know too there is nothing we can do about either. There are no exceptions. In the not-too-distant future, we know the bell will toll not for thee but for me.

It’s kind of depressing to think about, but as it is with much in life, it’s a matter of perspective. If one looks at having been born–given life—not as a right but as a privilege, that gloomy perspective can flip.

One of the wisest insights I gained is that life is a journey. Like any journey, it can be a blasé one—a prepackaged, sanitized, structured cruise—in which the traveler follows the herd and dutifully does what is expected of them, or it can be an extraordinary one in which they follows their own path. When they do that, they lick their chops not at finding the anticipated but at chancing upon or discovering the unanticipated. If one chooses the latter path and separates from their this-is-what-is-expected-of-you world, crosses the threshold, and ventures into the unknown, psychic energy transforms them. They become attuned, even addicted, to that life. In time they realize there’s no quitting, no going back to the safety net of their launch point and birth tribe and that their adventure will end with their last breath. And they’re good with that.

When they reach their elderly years however, they face a conundrum. It slowly dawns on them they are slowing down and can’t do stuff like they used to. Their problem is they know no other way. Despite their declining physical abilities, the siren of the journey still calls to their soul. It beckons them forth. Whether it’s the old man and the sea or the old man of the mountain, their place—the sea, the mountain, the desert, or wherever the place might be—has been etched into and become an indelible aspect of their being.

One of my favorite stories is Jeremiah Johnson, the Robert Redford film about being a mountain man. Each time I watch it, I am awestruck not only at the magnificence of the setting and the superb performances rendered by Redford, Will Gear (Bear Claw), and the other actors but also by the story itself, its tale and structure. The story line follows the hero’s path from beginning to end. The last character he encounters is Paints His Shirt Red, the Crow chief he encountered after he initially made his way into the mountains.

Watching it now through the lens of an old man of the mountain, I am struck by the ending: Though it doesn’t end ambiguously, it wraps only sort of conclusively. Yes, he’s been accepted and forgiven for his sacrilegious trespassing, but then what? Can he return to trapping and live out his days doing that? Where does he go? He can never return to civilization, nor does he want to. And he’s alone. All those he met and accompanied him on his journey are gone. So how does he spend his remaining years? It’s intriguing to consider, but the answer is really quite simple: He goes on and continues to do everything like he used to. Maybe more slowly and not as well, but with the same spirit—elan—he approached life when young, strong, and full of moxie. As it is with me.

So I can’t do it—ski, run, move rocks in my garden, and so on—like I used to, but I can go on like I used to and do many of the many activities I used to. Slower but with the same excitement, thrill, and enthusiasm I had when I started my journey. Just because my body is slowing and falling apart doesn’t mean I have to.

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  • Patty Pooh
    July 3, 2023 at 12:24 pm

    Love it .. not the getting older, slowing down part but love that we can still do what we enjoy .. with the same excitement, thrill and enthusiasm as we always had for it! And actually have found other things that bring me a peace and calm within that I’ve never noticed before. This, for me, came with age. Driving to work in the mornings, sun rising, kissing the tree tops on its way up through the sky, deer looking over across the fields from the edge of the woods, a buzzard with its wings stretched out as the sun dries them, a crane standing in the crick enjoying the quiet morning. Love it all. So peaceful. Love that you share it, too. And love you

  • Bonnie
    July 3, 2023 at 1:00 pm

    I believe the key to enjoying life has got to be having passions as well as staying as fit as we’re able. No matter what keeps your engine roaring, if you don’t have that love for something, your interest in staying fit will disintegrate. I knew a woman who lived to over 100 and continued to work on her life’s masterpiece, a biography of a gifted poet. Probably wouldn’t get me out of bed in the morning, but it did her. Might be art, music, tennis, cooking, a social justice cause, gardening. Doesn’t have to be the arts. Could be a religion. Whatever it is, it walks beside you minute by minute and enables you to have meaning in your life.

  • Scott Ruth
    July 3, 2023 at 1:29 pm

    This reminds me of a famous Stoic philosopher that had a permanent leg injury imposed on him by a cruel former master (he was in fact a slave). He never complained about it and when asked, he replied (paraphrasing) that “my leg injury is an impediment to my body, but not to my spirit”. Thank you for this perspective – it will serve us well if we contemplate it at any age.

  • Glenn Blanco
    July 3, 2023 at 2:32 pm

    It’s like that old country drinking song that says – “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m good once as I ever was”.

  • Cam Torrens
    July 3, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    Thanks for getting me pondering this morning, Jerry!

  • rick posner
    July 3, 2023 at 9:01 pm

    And so it goes, Jerry. So it goes.

  • Karen
    July 5, 2023 at 2:37 pm

    Poignant and resonant, Jerry. Slower, but steady as we go!

  • Laurel McHargue
    July 5, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    Yes! That last line! I’ve noticed recently how I’ve been chastising myself . . . as I grab one more thing to take downstairs, as I turn too quickly through a doorway and smack my hand (and see the inevitable old-lady-hand-bruise appear), as I fall over because I’m sure I can put on my socks without sitting down. After I chastise myself, I laugh. I might never learn, but I’ll keep on keepin’ on, even it if kills me (because something surely will)!

    I love you.

  • Mary Pat Young
    July 6, 2023 at 8:54 pm

    Oh , Jeez! This resonates. I was going through this scenario just this morning. It’s
    as though you were looking in on me, Jerry! My Mom had a a saying , “You have to keep going to keep going”

  • Joe Johnson
    July 20, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Glad I had a chance to drink from the cup of your wisdom this morning, Jerry. Makes me smile as I reflect on our hikes up to the marmots, the pikas, and the alpine lake above Herman’s Gulch!
    Joe Johnson