A commenter shared a story that underscores just how much being youthful is between our ears. Here's what she wrote.
Medium writer Nicole Cooper lives in Taiwan. She read a story of mine about aging the other day, and sent me this comment, which I share with her permission:
One thing I strongly dislike about American (and similar) society is how much we normalize complete deterioration as we age.
I’m currently residing in Taiwan and every morning I always see elderly people at the park walking, practicing tai chi, hanging on the monkey bars, doing leg swings, arm circles, and other dynamic stretches. Sometimes I’m usually one of the YOUNGEST people there (I’m 28).
Sometimes I practice doing handstands and other acro skills on the grass and I remember an elderly man who used to always watch me practice. At first, I thought it was because he was intrigued, but later I realized he was studying me. After about a week of him watching me, I went to the park one day to go for a walk. I saw him and he waved at me. Once he had my attention he immediately did a handstand and wanted my feedback! A few weeks later I watched him attempt a handstand (with better control) and then he tried to fall over and land in a bridge. Since he didn’t quite have the flexibility to do a proper bridge, his feet slipped and he landed on his back and got up like it was nothing. It reminded me of when I was learning this as a child and kept landing on my back yet wasn’t bothered by it. I didn’t ask him his age but that man had to be at least 70 years old. Witnessing the elderly exercise daily honestly made me look forward to getting old, which is something people most people in my age fear. (author bolded)
Nicole expresses precisely what makes us younger, at least between the ears, which is where it starts. This gentleman decided he wanted to give a handstand a try. Watched, observed, practiced, mastered part of it and practiced some more.
When he bonked his landing he leapt up.
Too many folks I know at that age would need an ambulance.
This is how we stay young. We do age. Of course we do. But HOW we age is everything, and this gentlemen perfectly demonstrated how his belief that he could do it led to his doing it.
You and I can, too. You and I can, too. And while that can of course depend, the point is that our noggin gets in the way of our joggin’ more often than not.
I write a lot about this because the research absolutely bears me out. To that then, for those still in doubt, and for whom some solid science behind this is further motivation to question what's between our ears:
Of all the claims I have investigated for my new book on the mind-body connection, the idea that our thoughts could shape our ageing and longevity was by far the most surprising. The science, however, turns out to be incredibly robust. “There’s just such a solid base of literature now,” says Prof Allyson Brothers at Colorado State University. “There are different labs in different countries using different measurements and different statistical approaches and yet the answer is always the same.”
I had tagged this article for a story and then Nicole wrote me hers. You can't ask for better serendipity.
Last year, when my hands didn't hurt quite as much as they do now and when I was a few months away from finally heading to Africa, I scanned the options in my town to see what I might do which was radically different. While I bookmarked a return to salsa (that's for this year) and finally learning martial arts (ditto), I leapt on the idea of aerial silks.
I was 68 at the time. I am no pro athlete. PUH LEEZE. However, like Nicole's observer, I listened to the instructor, did what she asked, and found myself shimmying skyward damned near to the ceiling on my second session.
Then, my instructor, satisfied that I was cool (I wasn't), strolled away. About twenty or so feet off the ground, I honestly couldn't remember how to descend. So I scorched the holy shit out of my hands, blistering them, just in time to start the one hour class.
Which I did anyway. Just like Nicole's buddy, who bonked a bridge and leapt right back up.
That was just funny. My instructor and I had a huge laugh.
If you read this as bragging you're missing both the self-effacing humor and the point. The point is that it never occurred to me not to try. Not even.
Nor to that gentleman in Taiwan.
Nor to a great many other oldies like me whose bodies are getting older but who have worked to take care of them, giving us options later in life. We've worked far harder to keep our attitudes youthful, which is the real challenge in an age-hating society.
Those options do not exist if we don't believe we have the right to try. If we are, past fifty, by god "decrepit and heading downhill." Lies and lies and lies and lies, all of which most of us can begin to turn around with both discipline and effort.
This is one of the key observations from Robson's article:
The implications of the finding are as remarkable today as they were in 2002, when the study was first published. “If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over seven years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy,” Levy and her colleagues wrote. “In the present case, one of the likely causes is known:
"societally-sanctioned denigration of the aged.”
Let that sink in, please.
I was in Jinja, Uganda, in 2015. A German kid was outside on his phone, running his mouth very loudly. I'd just finished rafting Class V rapids on the Nile, and had done more than my fair share of badass, seriously-challenging athletic activities on that trip alone. I was nursing broken ribs and another concussion. Three, in fact, from the Nile and a horse back ride when an acacia tree swept me off my horse to land on my head on hard clay.
I was tired and I needed sleep, for I was off to go ride a camel for seven days in Tanzania the next day.
So I walked outside and politely asked the kid to keep it down. He flipped me the bird, then turned to his phone and said
"What? Nothing. Just some old lady."
I bit my tongue, but it's a good thing I wasn't holding a baseball bat.
I whispered Schweinehund under my breath, older folks with any knowledge of German will know how insulting that is, and walked back to my room.
This "old lady" has done more badass adventures in the last twelve years than most people will ever even imagine. Swim with sharks? Yup, including Great Whites, hammerheads and bulls. Skydive? Yup, 131 times. Climb big mountains to the summit? Yup, both Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, both after sixty, and I was using Colorado's fourteeners as training runs. Fifty trips, lots of countries; the only thing slowing me down lately was Covid.
I am gearing up again right now, hands notwithstanding. Shoulder surgery notwithstanding. Sore foot notwithstanding. I'm doing it anyway, including still committing to a second summit of Kili in 2023, the year I turn 70.
So please, Sparky, STFU.
In all directions around me are people my age and older doing amazing things. Warren Nelson runs endurance races. Margaret Kruger flies airplanes IFR (instrument flight rules) and has her rescue diver certificate. Penny Nelson, who has never been in a gym, last year committed to just that, and has found herself enjoying a very different relationship with her body at 73.
I have a long, long list of people my age and older who are out there getting 'er did. Those people, their stories, and their love of life are part of why I am forming a community here on Walkabout. Because being able to highlight good news, progress, courage in the face of adversity and all those things that create the tough stuff that makes us even tougher are what make my writing life worth it. And those stories inspire me.
We are not super geezers, per se. We are not Olympians. We are simply deciding to live hard, long, wild and free as much as we possibly can while we can. That takes attitude, and it also takes damned hard work on the body so that we CAN play.
My basement has a gym, and I use it. In fact I have to head down there to do shoulder PT when I am done with this. I can't get my hand fixed until my shoulder is healed, so I am highly motivated.
What motivates you? Is there an unearthed dream? Is there somewhere you always wanted to go?
What is holding you back? While I recognize that some folks are indeed disabled or at the point where it might well be impossible, the truth is that so many of us have crippled ourselves with lifestyle choices. Change that, change your life, change your options. Any time.
Nicole is 28. Medium writer Nancy Peckenham wrote that apparently Ms. Kryst penned a piece when she was 28 which expressed her terror about turning thirty. She took her life when she reached that milestone, and cost the world a great talent. This is what society has done. Nicole doesn't buy that. She's in a place where age-hate doesn't permeate everything, which simply underscores for me how essential it is that we shut down most social media and simply go out and live.
Nicole did just that. And she saw proof that yes, we can indeed think ourselves young. That is precisely the example younger folks need from us. For if we can't offer hope, then the way forward is indeed hopeless.
Nicole, and millions upon millions just like her, need us to demonstrate what vibrant aging looks like.
You and I can live hopeful, joyful lives. It starts between our ears.
With thanks to Nicole for permission to quote.