Improving Independence

This past week we celebrated Independence Day, a milestone in American history.  On that day we recall our fledgling nation’s successful effort to separate itself from British rule and establish our own local government.  Since that time the concept of independence has become a significant pillar of American culture.  As a society we place a high value on individual independence.  We love the idea of the self-made person who succeeds by using his/her own wits and ingenuity.  A lofty ideal for sure, but a myth nonetheless.

Of course, we can often improve ourselves and sometimes even our circumstances through hard work and determination.  That’s true.  But everyone who does succeed at anything owes that success to external factors as much as internal drive.  Start with the accident of birth.  If you were born here in the U.S. or have had the good fortune to obtain citizenship or permanent resident status, you can thank that one fact alone for many of the opportunities you’ve been able to take advantage of in your life.   You can’t credit your birth to any ability of your own. It just happened that way and you are the unwitting beneficiary.  Maybe you were born into a privileged family, maybe not.  Or you might have had access to great schools and teachers.  Or not.  The amenities in your area – roads and transportation options, clean water, accessible food sources, etc. – may have served to add or detract from your quality of life, but either way they certainly contributed.  Sometimes the ability to change surroundings is available and sometimes not.  So in many ways, we are not as independent as we think.

Even those who are “off the grid” will probably find that they are still dependent on some external sources.  For example, if you grow your own food, you still may need certain weather conditions.  The availability of clean water is always a factor even if you use indoor gardening options.  As human beings we are neither infallible nor immortal.  We need food and water no matter what.  And we are subject to all kinds of illnesses and other physical problems.  At this point you might be wondering if I’ve been reading too many dystopian novels.  In fact, my intention is not to paint a bleak picture of human frailty, but simply to remind us all that we need each other.  We are all interconnected. Like or not.  And when that fact is accepted, the potential exists for all of us to get along with each other much better that we do.

A recent article in Yoga Journal reminds us that we are “supported in countless ways through each moment of your life”.  The article is about gratitude, but it is also about independence and interdependence.  The 17th-century author and pamphleteer, Roger L’Estrange, is quoted as saying that we often “mistake the gratuitous blessings of heaven for the fruits of our own industry.”  Thus not only do we need each other, but we are dependent on everything on the planet and even the universe to support us.  Without all of it, we could not exist.

Having said all of that, one of the most common refrains I hear among older people is that they (or should I say “we”) want to maintain their independence for as long as possible.  Becoming completely dependent upon others for daily needs is something many of us dread.  We want to keep driving our cars, walking on the trails, choosing our own food, living in our own homes, seeing other people when we want to or being alone when we prefer.  We don’t want to be a “burden” on our families, or on society.  And yet most of us will at some point lose at least some of our ability to take care of ourselves.

Still medical research suggests that this doesn’t always just happen simply due to aging.  Sometimes it is a result of inactivity.  As I’ve often said, the less you move, the harder it is to get moving again.  Another of my mantras is that we all need to move while we can move because one never knows when their ability to move will be altered.  Illness or accident can immobilize any of us at any time.  When people tell me they are afraid of flying, for example, I often respond that they could get hit by a car tomorrow.  Or trip getting out of bed.  Anything can happen.  These are just more ways in which that illusion of control over our own lives can go awry.  Sometimes a post-traumatic stress reaction can set in.  Once you experience pain from any source, it is easy to become fearful that the same pain will return.

So it all comes back to letting the lure of potential benefits overcome the siren song of fear.  In “Exercise:  A Guide From the National Institute on Aging” the authors state that “just about every older adult can safely do some form of physical activity” and, in fact, “studies suggest that not exercising is risky behavior.”  If motivation is a drawback, dangle that carrot of independence right in front of your nose every time you try to erect barriers.  Too hot or too cold outside?  Set a timer and walk around your house for 20 minutes.  Better yet, walk up and down some stairs.  You don’t have to go fast.  Just move continuously at whatever pace is available to you.  Or take a class!  Most classes are indoors and some are even air conditioned.  Afraid to go by yourself?  Call a friend or relative to go with you.  Remember that a class can be a source of support and strength.  These are two of the many qualities that help us to maintain independence while still recognizing our interconnectedness.  Leave your fear of looking funny at the door.  There was a wonderful article in this week’s “On Being” blog called “Perfection Will Do You In“, by columnist Parker Palmer.   In it, there is a poem by a 94-year-old Benedictine monk named Kilian McDonnell which is a must read.  Here is my favorite part:

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.

Bottom line:  nobody is perfect and we all need each other.  And remember – the independence you may save or extend could be your own.

Taming Transitions

Time is such a peculiar concept.  When you look at the universe, the stars, the planets, time doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.  We measure all movements, distances and changes in terms of time, but it appears to be a human construct invented for the sole purpose of giving us a method for understanding and discussion.  Time matters to us as humans because of the finite span of our own lives.  We want to cram in as much as possible since, by cosmic standards, we really aren’t here for very long.  This makes us very conscious of time and, in fact, our lives seem to revolve around this theme.  We mark the passage of time with each sunrise and sunset.  Also with the seasons.  We watch things grow and know that time is passing with each change we witness.  Acknowledging the passage of time is a critical element in our understanding of changes in our world and our own bodies.

The recent movie “Arrival” is all about the weirdness of time.  In the film beings from another world land on earth.  A linguist is recruited to translate the sounds they make.  In many ways this film highlights the vagaries of chronology, but one thing that I found particularly interesting occurred during this linguist’s initial attempt to communicate with the strangers.  She wrote something on a tablet and was immediately rewarded with visual symbols presented by these creatures.  The symbols were basically circular inspiring the linguist to note that this “language” was not dependent on time as ours is.  Each symbol appeared to have no particular beginning, middle or end.  Later in the film there was evidence that there were some ways in which time mattered to these beings, but perhaps that was because as humans making this film, it is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from time and its implications.  After all the movie itself had to have a beginning, middle and end even if they were kind of intertwined.  Still it was interesting to think about the ways in which our methods of communication are time-dependent.

So here we are, marching along with the unavoidable passage of time which is really just a way of describing change and yet somehow, in so many ways, we remain completely resistant to change itself.  From the time we are born, or even conceived, our lives are marked by change. When we’re young we change really quickly.  Yet many of us can’t wait to get older.  We rail against the slowness of time and the changes it brings.  As the years (another human concept!) progress, many changes govern our lives and there never seems to be enough time.  Then as we get older, physical changes again loom large.  Now they seem to be happening too fast.  Time seems to pass more quickly.  In our middle years we are often more likely to note the changes in others around us while somehow clinging to our own status quo.  So it can be quite a jolt to suddenly realize that our own bodies are changing right along with those of our children, grandchildren and parents.

Inevitably we reach a point where we have to acknowledge that we, too, have changed.  A friend and I were discussing today how difficult that can be to accept.  Sometimes changes in our physical capabilities can also mean the loss of a familiar community.  Years ago I used to belong to a running club.  Club members would all run together regularly.  Of course, there were many different speeds among the group, but there was always someone I could run with.  As time passed it became more and more difficult for me to run with others.  I wanted to keep running, so I did. But I needed to run at my own pace.  It was hard for me to keep up with anyone else, but I also did not expect anyone to slow their stride to stay with me.  So my attachment to this group began to unravel like fabric when a single thread starts to go it’s own way. Eventually, that became OK as I got more comfortable being with myself and enjoying my own movement.  But for a while it represented a loss.  In fact, multiple losses – physical capacity and also community.

As I continue to age, more examples of these losses present themselves.  Fortunately, I have since learned that loss of ability doesn’t always have to mean loss of community.  Sometimes there are other ways to participate with a group even if you can’t do everything they do. Especially in movement classes.  One of the themes I’ve repeated throughout this blog is that there is no requirement in any movement class that everybody has to do everything exactly as anyone else does, including the instructor.  Most of us worry that we will look funny or somehow be singled out if we don’t follow along precisely as prescribed.  In general, this could not be farther from the truth.  For one thing, most participants in a class are too focused on themselves to worry about or even notice what anyone else is doing.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, classes should be a judgment-free zone.  If the one you’re attending isn’t, then find another one.  There are so many out there.  Don’t let one bad experience keep you from finding a place where you can be yourself.  Just show up and move to whatever internal drummer motivates.  Ultimately you’ll find a place where you can feel comfortable.  Online classes are great in a pinch, but community is still an important benefit of classes.

However, sometimes we have to move on.  Accept the reality of the moment and find new paths to travel and new communities to join. When I could no longer run, I found other activities like hiking and walking that I could do alone or with a group – my choice.  When certain yoga poses become too difficult, there’s no rule that says I need to keep doing them.  There are so many others available to me.   Many aspects of my life will and have changed, but what I’ve achieved in the past will always be part of me.  No amount of change or passage of time can erase those accomplishments.  And the person I am today is the sum of all of the many experiences I’ve had during the time that has passed since the day I was born. Learning to be satisfied with who I am today is just another part of my practice.  Each day requires a new reminder of that since every day brings new changes.  Change can signal fear or excitement for experiencing something new.  It’s all a matter of how you perceive it.  And that is a choice each of us can make for ourselves.