“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”
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Wise Aging Workshops, reads the title in a brochure for fall offerings in continuing education. I had a problem deciding if the workshops were meant to be aging themselves, or they were about doing it wisely. I decided on the latter. That said, the subtitle entices with a directive to Live Your Later Years with Spirit, Resilience and Wisdom. Those are good goals for any time of life, although wisdom is a difficult acquisition for the young, and spirit and resilience can both be a challenge if physical energy is waning in the later years. Arriving in my email one morning with the subject line, “The Key to Aging Wisely”, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that this course was surely about “the aging brain”, for what could control the process of maturation more directly than our most essential of organs?
I well remember attending a lecture years ago purported to be about the secrets of the aging brain revealed by the leading brain doctor at a major New York City teaching hospital. I was surprised to find a young woman at the podium delivering what I assumed would be weighty medical sermon filled with facts and figures about the inevitability of our mental decline and how to live with it. I was also amazed to see a mixture of ages and genders in the audience, a fact I explained with the belief that the younger men and women were worried about their aging relatives who might soon become a burden. But I often find my most cherished assumptions overturned, and must say I rather enjoy the excitement that engenders. And so, listening to whispered snatches of conversation around the room, I soon realized everyone was there for the same reason: anxiety over their own aging!
Well, why not? I was barely middle-aged myself and I already had to search for the right word that had become maddeningly illusive. I assumed I had a dread disease or a mental disorder at first, but soon realized not only my muscles were deteriorating at an alarming rate; my brain was, too. Visions of a crystal bowl filled with paperclips and sundries on my desk kept floating up. How often I’d rummaged around in it, knowing I’d put what I wanted there but unable to find it, reminding me of my own brain quickly becoming just as useless and confused the fuller it got and the more haphazard the arrangement of its contents. Still, I wanted to know how to stave off the inevitable and hoped the lecture might assist. I was not alone, yet few of us felt satisfied that afternoon. There were no magic fixes and in fact, nothing most of us didn’t already know. It was a frustrating exercise.
I remember finishing my time in that room looking around at the wide variety of people in the audience and pondering an obvious truth: they were all concerned enough to be there because they all had aging brains, no matter what stage that process was in. Past the age of thirty, the feats of magic requiring high voltage electricity are no longer possible for anyone, ‘though the fact is decidedly unnerving. I didn’t know it then, but I’ve learned since that as the brain will take over for one sense when another is lost, forming new connections and wiring for electricity to travel in new ways, that very act of dealing with new challenges is what keeps it from sinking into an unresponsive, catatonic state. We need to keep pushing the mind in difficult new ways, doing things we’re not good at, inexperienced at and unsure of, requiring very different skill sets. To have ‘spirit, resilience and wisdom’ in later years, one must challenge the status quo or be left standing still at the station as the train pulls out.
This isn’t about doing mind games, playing in bridge or math tournaments or traveling until you drop, all in the name of working the brain so hard it makes the kind of muscles we aim for in the gym. It’s more about exploring a new place most of us haven’t ever been before: ourselves. Digging inside like an archaeologist with a passion for discovering the past is a wonderful way to work the brain in a very new way, stretching and expanding it with the creative possibilities of learning about who we really are, and why. It can be a most frightening adventure at first, but as we explore our innermost feelings with music, art and writing, we suddenly find we’re learning all kinds of things about the universe, as well. What a perfect way to develop a resilient spirit and the wisdom to keep the brain fully engaged as we move from inside, out.
I’ve been moving myself inside-out for at least a decade of aging now, writing about things I didn’t even know existed in my middle-aged years. And I’ve found each new foray, each attempt to tell a new story fearlessly has formed new places in my aging brain, giving it resources that weren’t there before. If the heart can access a new energy supply, so can the brain, and the best way to supply it is going inside-out with your own courage and initiative. You can run your own Wise Aging Workshops with the ideas you already have inside your head, as long as you work artfully to get them out.