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.

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Lessons Learned

If you read my last blog post, you will have learned that I was headed for spine surgery.  As it turned out, my surgery happened a week earlier than originally planned.  This was fine with me since by then I had reconciled myself to the need for the surgery and had also come to my wit’s end with the pain I was enduring.  It was not an easy decision to have the surgery.  Any time one is subjected to the vagaries of anesthesia and the dangers inherent in opening parts of the body that are otherwise not meant to open anything can happen.  These cautions become even more pronounced when working with the spine and the nervous system it is designed to protect.  Arriving at the decision to undergo surgery meant I had to surrender to the unknown and be willing to accept whatever consequences might ensue.  I have since spoken with many people who are daily enduring problems that surgery might fix but the fear of those consequences outweighs the problem.  For me it was the other way around: the prospect of a solution won me over.  As I said in my most recent post, I felt that the fact that a solution exists at all – and that I had access to it – put me in a far better category than those for whom a solution is not available.

At this point I am delighted to report that my surgery went exactly as planned and did, in fact, solve the problem for which it was intended.  I am beyond amazed at the miracle of it.  Despite our resilience, human beings are subject to a myriad of health problems.  Even as medical advances are made, new problems seem to crop up daily.  Yet there are also marvelous techniques now available that even a few years ago would have seemed impossible.  Here I am, not quite 5 weeks from my surgery and already I can walk a couple of miles pain-free and even do some yoga.  Nothing short of miraculous in my mind.

So what have I learned in this latest journey?  First of all, it really helps to be in good shape to begin with.  All my years spent touting the benefits of movement and working to motivate others has not been for naught.  The strength, flexibility and balance I have worked to maintain has definitely helped pull me through this.  The first week after the surgery was very difficult.  It is easy to understand how some people might succumb to that difficulty, stretching out or even hindering the recovery process.  Pain can create a vicious cycle – the more you hurt, the less you want to move, but the less you move the harder it is to get moving. Yet even while I was still in the hospital I was encouraged to move.  This is another change in the thinking of the medical community.  It used to be that after surgery people were told not to move.  Today, just the opposite is promoted.  Our bodies are meaning to move and the sooner one gets moving, the better for the body. It’s tough, though, to move when everything hurts.  So it became another opportunity for practice.  All of the lessons I’ve been writing about in this blog had to be re-activated.  Examples:  keep trying!  If you have to stop, then stop.  But try again later.  My doc gave me a simple rule of thumb, “If it hurts, stop.  If you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  That last part could be interpreted as license to stop trying, but that marker moves as the healing process progresses.  So what hurts today might hurt less tomorrow or the next day.  Each day brings another opportunity to try again.

Which brings me to Lesson #2 – the danger zone.  That first week was miserable, but by the second week I could already tell the difference. There was a spark of light at the end of the tunnel.  Healing was hardly complete but I could tell that I was getting better.  By the third week, I was actually feeling good much of the time.  That’s when the danger zone arrives.  I started to feel good enough to believe that I could do more than I should.  After a couple of episodes of over-doing (thankfully minor) I realized that I had to pull back.  This is when the full realization of aging starts to set in.  Although it is truly amazing that a person my age can go through a trauma like this and not only survive but thrive afterwards, I still had to respect the fact that healing is slower as we age.   It is so important to me to keep moving as much as I can for as long as I can.  Rather than invite set-backs that could be avoidable, I had to remind myself that I am in this for the long haul.  Feeling good will only get better if I have some patience and let it happen in its own time.  A fellow Pilates teacher said, “You’ll be that much stronger if you just wait until the time is right.”  Good advice.

And that’s Lesson #3 – I am continuing to get better on a daily basis and it was worth the wait.  Every day I feel stronger and more like my old self again.  It may take a little longer to get my fitness levels back, but come back they will if I just take it slow but keep moving forward.  Still I am changed by this as I am by every new experience.  I heard a great quote the other day:  an elderly woman was asked what it is like to be 89 or whatever age she was at that time.  Her answer, “I don’t know.  I’ve never been 89 before!”  A great reminder that as long as we’re on the planet, moving and breathing, life continues to be an adventure.  Each day is one you have never before experienced.  Stepping into the unknown can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning.  It can be scary, but we all have the capacity to be brave and do the best we can with whatever we have to work with on an given day.  Everything is changing all the time. So whatever you felt yesterday might be different today.  Treat every moment like the remarkable gift it is.