What if….? An Exercise in Healthy Aging
This series has introduced the concept of aging from a new perspective that is currently not well known – that of “healthy aging”. I believe that in the future we will be examining the aging process from many aspects that include not only the physical but the emotional, mental and spiritual parts of life as well. It is in the acquisition of a wide variety of belief systems learned and “embodied” during our earliest years that we become the adults we are going to be – and the choices we will make as a result. The fact is that we make critical choices throughout our entire lives and that from which we learn all of life’s lessons.
Most of the time we learn our greatest lessons from making mistakes – and by taking risks that may frighten us – but that can also inspire us to greater accomplishment. The courage to move forward (in spite of our fear of the unknown) and “try again” comes from the formation of the foundation that emerges during the process of attempting what we may think of as “impossible” but is really a belief in “I am possible”. This hope – and innate faith in our potential – is what I believe to be to the true essence of healthy aging.
It is in the “art” of aging that I feel we can truly embody the principles of healthy aging. Living without regret and practicing each day to become more – and do more as well – is a pattern I hope we will ALL embrace as we grow older – and NOT old. Let’s examine a way in which we can remain present and age well with each day – free of guilt and regret. I call this exercise “what if….?” It can give you an indication of where you are on your journey in life and key your thinking to making changes – and new choices – that will empower you and free you to take reasonable risks, enabling you to discover more about your TRUE potential than you ever dreamed possible.
I have been asking the following question of some older people at my gym and it is challenging not only them but me as well. It is: “What if you could go back in time and tell your younger self anything that you think is TRULY important to know then, what would that be?” The answers have surprised me because they come from people who have lived a lot of years and are clear on why they are doing what they are doing in terms of activity now. One said I would tell my younger self to appreciate every moment to the fullest because time “speeds up” as we grow older and being “busy” means losing the power of the present. Another said I would tell my younger self to appreciate all that I can do NOW because the years have a way of taking from us things we have taken for granted and can only appreciate after they have been removed from our experience. What then do we do about this issue of “losing” who it is we “think we are”?
I referenced my thoughts on this subject in my article on Charlie Wedemeyer who passed away in 2010 of ALS after years of being confined to a wheel chair – unable to live the life of freedom he must have imagined for himself when he started his high school football coaching career after graduating from college. I asked the question: What if I could no longer run the way I am now? How would that fact change my life? How would I BE if that ever happened to me? My life has always been partly defined by my athletic ability. I have been blessed to be able to maintain my skill through all these 66 years and have become increasingly grateful with every passing day because I know it could all be taken away in an instant. Charlie’s life embodied making choices that most of us will never be forced to make but it is worth acknowledging ‘what if…?’ Asking “what if?” can apply to EVERY aspect of our lives. In practicing the discipline of QUESTIONING ourselves every day, we allow “new thoughts” to take shape in our consciousness giving us the freedom to choose a new path that fulfills our dreams – and KEEPS US YOUNG!
I am planning to run a 6 minute mile on my 80th birthday not just because it is a HUGE challenge but because it fuels my imagination about the possibilities and potential that it COULD reveal within me. I could take this thought further by appreciating the friends in my life, the family that loves me, the journey that I am on RIGHT NOW, the mission I am here to fulfill (sharing with you), and many other aspects of my life. It is in the daily “rituals” of life that we uncover our “true” passions and desires. The idea that we age “from within” appeals to me. It strengthens my resolve and the belief in the notion that I – and I alone – am in control of my destiny. The next time you find yourself questioning your capability to achieve – and be more – ask yourself “what if…” and see what emerges in your ‘mind’s eye’. Follow that wisdom because it IS your instincts “kicking in” – and don’t be afraid of failure because that is how we ALL learn in life.
Pretending to “look back on your life” and tell your younger self something valuable that you would want to know today as a result of your experience in life is a valuable tool that you can use at anytime in your life – or your day. In asking the question of the people at the gym today I found myself saying that I would tell my younger self to be patient – and appreciate the complexity of making choices that affect the outcome of my life. One such decision that I regretted for years was leaving the Air Force at the end of my four year tour as a Titan II Missile Combat Crew Commander. If I had thought through that decision instead of “reacting to the life I was living as somehow bad” I might have found myself living a completely different life than the one I found after I separated from the Air Force in 1972. The impact of that choice reverberated through the ensuing years leading to bankruptcy, divorce, multiple job changes, poor personal decisions and so much more. It could have ‘possibly’ been avoided if I had thought more carefully about what I was about to do. Who knows? It is in the past but look how it still affects my life today! We never really lose ourselves along the way – we just learn how NOT to decide!
Examining your life NOW – and in every moment that is important to you – WILL keep you young and vital for the challenges that will inevitably come to you as you grow older – but not old. Don’t put yourself in a position where you are “reacting” and not “responding” to your life because your choices WILL be limited by fear and guilt – and regret – and that will DEFINITELY age you faster than you ever dreamed possible. People DO look OLD to me (in many ways) and in many cases they are YOUNGER than I am. I have been told I “look” 15-20 years younger than I am and it is probably due to my commitment to remaining present and hopeful while being “open” to life’s possibilities. Being fit has obviously been a HUGE advantage for me and I am sorry so many are suffering in their later years today. You have a chance to “get ahead” today by asking “what if…?” and preparing yourself for the life YOU want to live and not for someone else but for YOURSELF! Don’t do as I did when I was younger. Live fully NOW in the present, be open to change, and make the best choices you can TODAY! They WILL be reflected in your health and in your commitment to yourself – and your life will be full and happy as a result!