Reflections on fuckups, fails and the fabulousness of all of it.
Dear Reader: This is a longish read, but if you are in the middle of the shits, it might be a really valuable one. I don't know anyone who isn't, but there might be a tidbit in this that is useful to you and yours.
My social media guru JC's got Covid. That said he still took my call. He was irritated at himself for not following protocols, getting sick again and infecting his partner, who is dealing with a significant health issue of her own. I can't blame him. But it's just life.
It's not failure, per se.
We were discussing his impending 40th birthday and my impending 70th. That discussion was part of what I spent time on the phone with my friend Dr. Rosenna Bakari today. She sometimes takes me along on her early morning walks, which allows me to enjoy whatever city she's walking in the background as she ticks off the miles.
I can't walk or hike very comfortably right now because the bones on the tops of my feet, as it turns out, are fractured. I've been living with that, and the increasing pain, for three years. I had no idea until the x-rays revealed the damage, which was worse than I had imagined. I had simply dealt with the pain and trained anyway. At this point, the only fix is surgical, and the first is this fall, which threw a wrench into a few other plans. But repairs are repairs.
Dr. Bakari, among many other topics on a typical far-ranging call, discussed with me the notion we Westerners have around success. Let's just parce that out for a moment. The word, for most of us, conjures up images of money, fame, belongings, all the external trappings. Those no longer speak to me, albeit enough money is necessary to stay alive. Key word: "enough."
Success is highly individual. That said, given the plethora of books, tapes, and constant messaging around how to measure one's success in a failed democracy, the idea does deserve to be dissected. I despise the Tony Robbinses of the world; he and that ilk are a pox on the process of learning how to define success in a world where our addiction to stuff is wiping out everything worth enjoying.
I am concerned with successful aging.
I can be old and rich, but if I am lonely, alone, isolated, bitter, pissed off and in terrible health, I am an abysmal failure in every sense of the word, no matter how luxurious my death bed and expensive the help.
I'm going to take one piece of it out here, which Dr. B pointed out, which is just one reason I love speaking with her. She has a way of seeing what I don't, a fact which Saga supporter Penny Nelson also pointed out in a comment the other day on a different article.
We're discussing my next book. That is inevitable, not only because I love to write, but also because I am living something that all of us face -aging- and I am making of it a different adventure than many, if not most Westerners. The piece that I wanted to call out here is about the body, that poor, beleaguered skin suit that carries us so far and works so hard.
The way she put it is that I keep going on and on and on, despite the regular and often deeply painful injuries, breakdowns and procedures that I have to endure either because of my own clumsiness or the sheer fact of years and years of use, such as with my hands and fifty years of hard core bodybuilding and constant constant typing.
My attitude about it is pretty direct but also kinda nonchalant. What other option is there? Plenty, given what we see in our aging population. However, she pointed out, not without plenty of proof, that no matter what my aging body throws my way I just keep going. Deal with it, do the work, get the repairs and keep going.
I don't allow myself another option.
It never occurred to me that there was anything either courageous or admirable about that way of being. However, Dr. B also pointed out that such behaviors are set in place far earlier. If you and I are to age vibrantly, or as she put it, age courageously, (both of which she is doing very well, just to be fair), then the earlier we put those habits into place, the better off we are.
It's far, far easier to simply pick yourself up and pivot after a massive failure at seventy, which most certainly just happened to me, when you learn to do just that early on. I argue strenuously that we need time to deal with grief, a skill which largely still eludes me. The point is that when wallow in our self-absorption of ain't it awful, we don't learn coping skills.
We most certainly do not learn coping skills by blaming Boomers or anyone else, or waiting for a savior, when the only person that can do the saving is ourselves.
In a world where far, FAR too many of us find slights in nothing, find offense in nothing, are hurt by nothings (all comparatively, please) then when the real crap hits the fan such as divorce, job loss, a house fire, cancer or whatever life has in store for us, we are inept to the point of ridiculousness. I may not like the derogatory term snowflake but there is some basis to the insult. When we protect ourselves against ANY kind of slight or pain, we are walking marshmallows.
Pain, which is inevitable, is life's great teacher on how to deal with pain. It is the suffering part which folks seem so determined to wallow in these days which is optional.
JC commented that he felt irritated with himself that, as he approaches forty, parts of him feel as though he shouldn't be making the kinds of mistakes he still does (as do we all). By now he should know better. Really? Hell, at nearly 70, the only thing I know better is how to navigate the stupid shite I still do but with humor, which is my super power.
I have suffered from the same conceit, and it is baseless. The ONLY thing we can learn is how to negotiate terms with our inevitable brain farts more swiftly, and get up and move on without the cat-o'-nine-tails mental ass-whipping we so love to inflict on our flawed selves.
In that perfect way that an imperfect world delivers serendipity to those of us paying attention, this morning's Marginalian laid this golden egg at my doorstep as I consider my emptying house, my busted-up hands and feet, my failed corporation in a completely broken country. Here, from the book published in 1996:
For those not familiar, this nun resigned at the heart of a very ugly sexual abuse scandal which devastated the Buddhist community:
It would be fair to say that she and many others had their lives rocked, if not ruined. I hope that the gorgeous prose she wrote which inspires me helped her through this.
As a struggling but determined student of Buddhism, I found that her piece resonated beautifully especially after the walk/talk with Dr. B.
Because this whole piece is worth every second you give it, I will only give a chunk here to tempt you to take the time to delve into her writing:
Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.
When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually. (author bolded)
That last sentence speaks to how seriously misguided is our understanding of the teachings of being born again. The old self constantly "dies" so that a new self can born. This is the very definition of personal growth. In all of the Cosmos, something has to die for something new to be born. It is the price of our evolution and has not a damned thing to do with religious dogma. It does in every single way speak to spiritual growth, however.
You can see, I am sure, why this reading was so fine, so perfect, on a cold morning of July 4th when I have a fire in my fireplace, which is THE main reason I moved here. And it's also THE main reason why, as I search out a new place to spend time (you notice I didn't say LAND FOREVER), I want cool, wet and bushy. Hence, high country Colombia. I have my flights, my hotels, my advisor and an interim plan.
At this point, all life is an interim plan. It always was.
My body is letting me know where it needs work. I have no idiot ideas about returning to the level of health I had at 64, which was my absolute peak. I do know that with all the bionic pieces of metal and wire about to be installed, those will offer both a brand-new lease on my longevity as well as some brand-new but minor limitations going forward. All I care about is the going forward part, for there are worlds to explore and I no longer have a wealth of time.
Talking with Dr. B is exceedingly uncomfortable.
One of the reasons she is so precious to me is because our talks are exceedingly uncomfortable. She has a superb way of teasing out truths which I have either not seen or avoided entirely. Some of them are no fun to face, but if I am determined to grow, there really is no option but to face them, embrace them and let them guide me forward. That's the courageous aging part.
The other is that she also has a way of pointing out things that I am doing which are admirable, which I don't see, take for granted (like pick yourself up and keep going) and therefore, fail to give myself credit for. It never even occurs to me that my lifelong habit of exercise, along with a lifelong habit of pivoting after spectacular failures, have combined to make me a near-master at pivoting and thriving at nearly 70.
It's no big deal to navigate all these surgeries and the PT and all the pain and annoyance and demands such events place on an aging body. Not for me, anyway.
In twelve years of adventure travel I have broken my back, smashed my pelvis, gotten twenty-two concussions, broken an elbow and wrist, had my ribs and face caved in by a horse, my shoulder stepped on, a knee damaged repeatedly from falls and horseback riding, busted ribs from riding and kayaking, stress fractures from bad boots during weeks of Canadian hiking, foot fractures from large horses standing on my feet, a serious car accident that severely damaged my entire left side, kidney stone surgery, three shoulder surgeries, an oophrectomy and now, four more surgeries to rebuild my hands and both my feet.
That's the short list, because it doesn't address all the small injuries and annoyances that an athletic life imposes.
I have more braces, boots, elastic bands and PT equipment than my PT provider. And I keep right on going. I have learned to take these things in stride. It simply does not occur to me to slow down and stop, other than for the surgery and recovery time. I am always learning new ways to work out despite a cast or with a hand or foot down.
I just keep right on going.
This isn't about bragging. I honestly never gave myself credit for any of this. The larger point, however, is that it's not about me. This is her point:
It's about what habits of thought and body and soul that you and I inculcate into our lives early on, so that as we age we can draw on those coping skills.
I have to admit that when I hear someone wail about breaking a nail, ohforheaven'ssake. I remember when I smashed this middle finger with such a powerful swing of a hammer I actually exploded the tip. Exploded the tip. I was at the top of a tall ladder installing a very large, very heavy Buddhist wood carving.
I let loose a very un-Zen like stream of blue language.
Blood spattered. My floor and walls looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. I took a deep breath, put the hammer down, got my balance, laughed out loud, then backed down slowly, washed up all the blood (there was a lot of it), wrapped it in a bandage and finished the installment job. Then I unwrapped it, inspected the damage, chortled, and went to a clinic where they stitched that bad boy up, and walked out with a white condom on my middle finger, perfect for flipping off White Supremacists.
If you can't laugh at this, it owns you.
Dr. B said, and I concur, that the earlier you and I are willing to push ourselves to risk terrible failure, to face those parts of ourselves which are unattractive, failed, flawed and prone to hurtful actions, the faster we incorporate the very skills which we absolutely MUST have for a vibrant aging process.
We've heard it before. I am now living it. Fifty years of exercise habits, sixty-plus years of dealing with necessary pivots after life's hard balls and disappointments. I am good at this. Such skills, honed over the years, serve us very well as we age, and they most certainly support us when the body inevitably starts throwing hard AND curve balls over the plate.
I plan to keep knocking 'em out of the park like 42, but it takes practice.
Dr. B gave me permission to bloody well give myself credit for what I am doing well, that great masses of Americans simply cannot manage. Those are our choices. Of course it's hard. But as long as we seek a savior, or to avoid the worst life has to offer, we will be weaklings, body, mind and soul. The work is ours to do, not to avoid.
While some of you have been most kind when I share some of the ugly stories from my youth, I would posit here that had those years been different, I would not now have the agency to deal with life's vicissitudes in ways that very few people seem to have any more. I read the blaming and wailing poor me on Medium and wonder holy crap, what's going to happen to them after forty, when their bodies start to fail, after decades of abuse, poor food, alcohol, drug abuse and the like?
As I have written elsewhere, I am not in search of a savior, Easy Street or any other damned thing which offers a way to avoid the worst life has to offer. There is only through.
As you face each day, I would offer this: you and I need someone around us to remind us, as Dr. B did for me today, where we have skills that we take for granted. Where we have built mastery that we take for granted. The great gift of having others notice what we do well, what they admire or wish to emulate is what keeps us from despairing. This is just one reason I suggested keeping a journal.
However, it is even more important to also arm ourselves with friends who push, cajole, challenge, invite and reinforce our best selves. THAT is success: when you and I have those friends around us, and we do the same for those friends. No pretty house, fancy car or fat bank account can replace such riches.
My greatest success in all of life is learning how to laugh in the teeth of life's worst winds, then offer my humble and sincere gratitude that I was the one who got body-slammed. For I can indeed handle it. Learning how to do that starts young. Continuing to take the hits allows us to march up the hardest hill, called aging, with a sense of humor, friends, faith and a very light heart indeed.
Dedicated with great love and respect to my friend Dr. Rosenna Bakari whose articles, books and words are great inspirations to living a fuller life.
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