At 88, I remain a competitive runner, always sprinting the last hundred yards of a race to cross the finish line with nothing left to give. The finish line of my life is drawing close, and I hope to reach it having given the best of myself along the way. I’ve been training my body to meet the demands of this final stretch. But, I wonder, should I have asked more of my mind?
I have no trouble taking my body to a gym or starting line. I’ve done a good job convincing myself that if I didn’t exercise, I would unleash the many predators that seek their elderly prey on couches, but not on treadmills. The more I sweated, the more likely it was my internist would continue to exclaim, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ll see you next year.” It was my way of keeping at bay the dreaded: “Mr. Goldfarb, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
My mind, on the other hand, seems less willing to yield to discipline, behaving as if it has a mind of its own. I have dabbled in internet “brain games,” solving algebraic problems flashing past and rerouting virtual trains to avoid crashes. I’ve audited classes at a university, and participated in a neurofeedback assessment of my brain’s electrical impulses. But these are only occasional diversions, never approaching my determination to remain physically fit as I move deeper into old age.
Despite having many friends in their 70s, 80s and 90s, I’ve been far too slow to realize that how we respond to aging is a choice made in the mind, not in the gym.
Some of my healthiest friends carry themselves as victims abused by time. They see life as a parade of disappointments: aches and ailments, confusing technology, children who don’t visit, hurried doctors.
Other friends, many whose aching knees and hips are the least of their physical problems, find comfort in their ability to accept old age as just another stage of life to deal with. I would use the word “heroic” to describe the way they cope with aging as it drains strength from their minds and bodies, though they would quickly dismiss such a term as overstatement.
One such friend recently called from a hospital to tell me a sudden brain seizure had rendered him legally blind. He interrupted me as I began telling him how terribly sorry I was: “Bob, it could have been worse. I could have become deaf instead of blind.”
Despite all the time I spend lifting weights and exercising, I realized I lack the strength to have said those words. It suddenly struck me I’ve paid a price for being a “gym rat.”
If there is one characteristic common to friends who are aging with a graceful acceptance of life’s assaults, it is contentment. Some with life-altering disabilities — my blind friend, another with two prosthetic legs — are more serene and complain less than those with minor ailments. They accept the uncertainties of old age without surrendering to them. A few have told me that the wisdom they’ve acquired over the years has made aging easier to navigate than the chaos of adolescence.
It was clear I lacked, and had to find, the contentment those friends had attained. The hours I spent exercising had given me confidence, but not contentment.
The 30-pound weight I no longer attempt to lift reminds me that not far off is the day when lifting anything, or running anywhere, will be asking too much of my body. My brain would have to become the muscle I counted on to carry me through these final years with the peace and purpose others had found. Aging had to be more than what I saw in a mirror.
But rather than overhauling my life completely in the hopes of undertaking a fundamental change in the way I confronted aging, I felt the place to begin would be to start small, adopting a new approach to situations I encountered every day. A recent lunch provided a perfect example.
I’ve always found it extremely difficult to concentrate when I’m in a noisy setting. At this lunch with a friend in an outdoor restaurant, a landscaper began blowing leaves from underneath the bushes surrounding our table.
Typically, after such a noisy interruption, I would have snapped, “Let’s wait until he’s finished!” then fallen silent. When the roar eventually subsided, my irritation would have drained the conversation of any warmth. The lunch would be remembered for my angry reaction to the clamor, and not for any pleasure it gave the two of us.
It troubled me that even a passing distraction could so easily take me from enjoying lunch with a good friend to a place that gave me no pleasure at all. I wanted this meal to be different and decided to follow the example of friends my age who know they are running out of joyous moments and will let nothing interfere with them. They simply speak louder, accepting the noise for what it is, a temporary irritant.
My years in gyms had taught me to shake off twinges and other distractions, never permitting them to stop my workout or run. I decided to treat the noise as if it were a cramp experienced while doing crunches. I would shake it off instead of allowing it to end our conversation.
I continued talking with my friend, challenging myself to hear the noise, but to hold it at a distance. The discipline so familiar to me in the gym — this time applied to my mind — proved equally effective in the restaurant. It was as if I had taken my brain to a mental fitness center.
Learning to ignore a leaf blower’s roar hardly equips me to find contentment during my passage into ever-deeper old age. But I left the lunch feeling I had at least taken a small first step in changing behavior that stood in the way of that contentment.
Could I employ that same discipline to accept with dignity the inevitable decline awaiting me: frailty, memory lapses, dimming sound and sight, the passing of friends and the looming finish line? Churning legs and a pounding heart had taken me part of the way. But now the challenge was to find that contentment within me. Hoping that contentment will guide me as I make my way along the path yet to be traveled.