Resilience and Aging

Last week my grandson, Eli, and I were tossing a ball around. The sun bathed the lawn and the little pond beside it.  We were laughing and teasing and sweating.  He would try to catch balls on the full run.  I would reach for high and low balls so that I didn’t have to run.  If Eli threw it too far away, I insisted that he get it.  No reason I should have to move because of his poor aim.  If he threw it over my head, I’d reach up but stop short of leaping, twisting, and turning.  Why risk hurting myself.  As the ball flew over my head, I’d make a mock angry face and we would both laugh.  These are such good times.

That evening I thought about my refusal to twist and leap.  It marked a change in life, a loss.  Just one more way that I was never again going to thrill to my strength and agility.  I had been a very good athlete as a youth, free and easy, quick and powerful.  I thought there were virtually no limits to what I could do if I tried. The joy of movement may have been my greatest friend.  That relationship lasted, in modified form, well into my sixties.  I ran and played tennis, hiked for weeks on end in the high mountains, jumping defiantly from rock to rock as we crossed rushing streams.  With a friend, I built a house without power tools, cut out acres of trees to dig a pond—all for the pleasure of it.

At the time, my ability to pursue these activities seemed invaluable.  I felt I couldn’t live without them.  And there have been substantial losses.  But here’s the interesting thing.  Mostly I don’t mind.  The sorrow is gentler than anticipated, and I find so many things to do that engage me just as fully. It might look like  my life is more limited now, but it doesn’t feel that way.  It is filled with friends and families, and activity, thoughts, reading, writing, and sharing what I have learned with younger people.  I love as deeply as ever.  I follow my enthusiasms as avidly as I did when young and unformed.

These good experiences don’t feel compensatory, and generally, I am not aware of anxiously struggling to replace the old ones.  For instance, now I walk for exercise.  During my decades of running, walking looked paltry.  I had to lecture my pompous young self not to feel superior and contemptuous of the walkers.  Now I don’t feel humiliated by “just” walking.  I “just” do it and feel pretty satisfied when I’ve had a good walk.  As far as I can tell, I like what I’m doing.  I feel as pleased now as I did a year or a decade ago.

I don’t fully understand my internal experience of losses.  Do I say, oh well, I can live without this or that?  Do I simply forget the joys of the past?  To some extent, I do.  Is it a matter of focus?  I simply focus on what I have?  I think that’s a big part of it.  Do I grieve and then recover because I have grieved?  Maybe.  Do I adjust my expectations?  Surely I do.  But after saying all these things, I still don’t really understand.  I am more comfortable saying that there is some form of alchemy going on, some unconscious process, working on my behalf, that puts the losses behind.

Maybe the alchemy is best expressed through the more modern concept of resilience.  While resilience is commonly applied to children—the “resilient child”—and to victims of trauma, it may tell us as much about aging.  Resilience is variously defined (Google) as “the ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity…”  or “to adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  It is “springing back” and “rebounding.”  But I like the original meaning:  “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.”  As we compress, our abilities are diminished.  As our shape changes—literally in very old age—resilience represents our ability to regain our essential form.  This is important: not our physical or mental form but the essence of our being.

There are two qualities of resilience that I especially want to focus on: optimism and self-determination.  Let’s begin with self determination, or what psychologists call an “internal locus of control.  “From a young age, resilient children tend to meet the world on their own terms.”  They tend to be independent and able to mobilize whatever skills they need to solve problems.  “They believed that they, and not their circumstances, effected their achievements.”  I have never understood why people blame others for their failures.  I don’t mean this in a moral ,but rather a psychological, way.  I feel the same about losses. They upset me at first but, if I pay attention to whatever I’m doing—say playing catch with my grandson—then they don’t stick.  As my attention turns to the present, the losses sort of disappear into my current activity.

I have been fortunate enough to not have suffered terrible, debilitating losses, and can’t imagine how I would respond to them.  But I have struggled with cancer and other illnesses.  And I have come to believe that the ability to move on, to not obsess about what is wrong, represents an intentional, attentional discipline.  I’d like to claim that it is a discipline that I have achieved after years of meditation, and maybe that has played a role.  But it is less conscious than that, a quality of mind long ago ingrained in me, so automatic, that I don’t hold onto losses.

I’m pretty sure that self determination is not enough.  It needs a partner: optimism, a belief that things will work out if you work hard enough.  There is plenty of scientific support for the relationship between resilience and positive feelings.  Studies show that “maintaining positive emotions while facing adversity promotes flexibility in thinking and problem solving.”  How you perceive events is critical.  Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.” In other words, what is traumatic to one person is not to another.  So it is with losses.  The power that loss has over you depends on how you conceive it.  The way you conceive it depends on your discipline.

There were two things I have always wanted for my children, now 45 and 37.  First, to feel loved.  With that feeling, they would be free to approach the world with security and an open heart. That would make them resourceful.  Second, to believe that with hard work, almost anything is possible.  You have to put the work in but first comes the belief that things will come out right if you do.  It never occurred to me that the same lessons would be the ones I would lean on myself as I grew older.  But I do.

Confidence and freedom

In my last letter I wrote about my desire for freedom and emphasized freedom from constraints.  But as we all know, there is more than one kind of freedom: freedom from and freedom to; and the feeling of being so absorbed that you lose self-consciousness.  You are free because you have escaped all those enervating inner monologues about doing better and doing more.

A key part of absorption is the experience of confidence.  You move through an activity feeling sure of yourself, not even worrying about mistakes, just flowing the way that an athlete moves when he is in a “zone,” the way a piano player’s fingers move across the keyboard, as though they are independent of her mind.  For a moment, there is almost no intention.  It’s just happening.  You’re just happening.

For the most part, we associate this kind of confidence with youth.  They are too young, we say, to understand all that can go wrong, and we envy their innocence.  But confidence is essential to aging as well, and that’s what I want to explore today.  I have been feeling confident in the writing I have been doing.  It has come easy.  Ideas and words are flowing.  I’d like to understand how to sustain it.

Researchers seem to prefer the phrase “self esteem,” and have gone to great lengths to measure it, even to measure its developmental course.  After large, longitudinal studies, for example, Ulrich Orth, PhD tells us that “Self esteem was lowest in young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline.”  Retirement adds an extra push towards decline.  Good health and success in life help to stem the loss, as can many individual experiences.  But generally, confidence dips in step with aging.  As anyone observing very old people knows, anxiety comes increasingly into the forefront.

Being seventy four years old, and knowing that my health and strength will inevitably continue their downward course, I am particularly eager to remain confident anyway.  I keep asking myself: can health and confidence be separated?  I know that there are limits to how much I can control about my health.  The question is: can I build the discipline to focus on what I can control and on what makes me confident.

Paul Baltes, a developmental psychologist, had some very good ideas about this.  When describing his SOC model, he began with a story about the great concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein.  Rubenstein had just given a performance to thunderous applause.  A young man approached him with a question: how do you keep playing so well at eighty six?  Rubenstein smiled, sat down carefully, and explained.  “First of all,” he said, “I have narrowed my repertoire a great deal.”  That’s what Baltus calls Selection.  You choose what you can and want to do well and eliminate what you can’t.  “Second,” Rubenstein continued, “I practice that small repertoire all the time.”  Baltus calls this Optimization.  You can sustain your nimbleness and effectiveness within a chosen range of activities.  “Third,” said Rubenstein, “I have tricks.  As you know, I am known for my speed and emphasis at the keyboard.  When I approach fast passages now, I slow down a great deal more than I used to.  That way, when I speed up, the difference between slow and fast is just as great, and I seem to have maintained my speed.”  That’s Compensation.

As I age, I’ll never get better with details and names.  I’ll need my grandchildren to help with my computer and my phone.  It’s unlikely that I’ll develop a flair for dancing or a keen understanding of quantum physics.  All of those arenas make me feel like an idiot and, unless I can laugh about them, sap my confidence.

What, then, is my comfort zone, arenas that build my confidence?  Most of all, I do feel that I see the big picture and the long view.  This is common enough for older people.  If you are sharp, you may have noticed that I have been writing blog posts lately.  They are flowing from my mind, something like the way that Rubenstein’s fingers still flow across the keyboard.  The ease is surprising and wonderful.  And like Rubenstein, I have some ideas about why this is happening.

First, many specific topics fit into a pretty extensive base of knowledge.  I’m an old guy.  I’ve been reading and listening and thinking for decades.  I have accumulated all sorts of ideas about how things work and what motivates people.  There are streams of ideas, impressions, stories floating around my brain, and new ideas fit within the streams.  These streams are waiting to be tapped.  I don’t have to search too far for what an event in the news means to me.  The whole process is so fluid, so automatic that ideas to write about virtually form themselves.  As a result, I have such a good feeling of freedom and confidence when I am at my (computer) keyboard.

And I trust the ideas.  They just feel right.  I also trust them because they don’t have to be exactly “right” or “the best.”  They are mine and that’s enough.  You can’t grow old without becoming at least a little eccentric, and I’m comfortable with that.  That, too, feels liberating.

So let’s return to Baltes.  I have selected an activity, writing, that I’ve been doing for more than fifty years.  I’ve chosen a form of writing—brief essays—that is much easier than the complex essays and books I once wrote.  Like Arthur Rubenstein, if a tad less successfully, I am learning and practicing my craft with discipline. That’s optimization.  I’m not sure what tricks I am using but one may be that I’ve been writing in the spoken voice.  It’s like talking to a friend—or writing a letter to a friend.  A letter on aging.  I don’t have to pretend to be setting the standard for a professional field.  I’m just talking.  That’s compensation.

As I write or talk to friends about my new toy, the blog, I do feel good, even confident.  My hope is that you, too, will look into your own activities, then, in your own way, follow Arthur Rubenstein’s example.  Let me know if it makes you feel more confident and, with confidence, free.