When I was a teenager, I read an essay, “The Energies of Men” by William James (1842-1910). In it, Mr. James, a well-known and respected psychologist and philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, put forward the idea that health and physical condition could have affected to some great extent by attitude.
His idea was that most of us had reserves of which we were not aware, but which were there, waiting below the surface of our existence, to answer our call when needed or wanted. As he states:
“… in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, – sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points. ”
While acknowledging that there are limits, Mr. James felt that most of us seldom came close to using the amounts of energy and health available to us. He went on to state that most of us became accustomed to this state of affairs and live our lives far below the level which we could achieve, just because we believe what we perceive as “the way things are” is the reality in which we must live.
Further, Mr. James wondered about what triggers those occasional moments when individuals move into a higher realm of energy and accomplishment.
His answer in his own words:
“Either some unusual stimulus fills them with emotional excitation, or some unusual idea of necessity induces them to make an extra effort of will. – Excitements, ideas, and efforts -, in a word, are what carry us over the dam.”
He gives examples of necessities such as duty, the example of others, “crowd pressure”, or other needs of the situation as stimuli which can invoke “energies of men” beyond their normal levels.
However, these are momentary and external stimuli which produce, in Mr. James' opinion only sporadic flights into the higher levels of human potential. He wanted something better, and believed that he had found it.
He had noticed in his life and in his studies that certain attitudes and certain disciples, such as yoga, could help people transcend their normal levels of life. He further noticed that this ability to move to a higher plane of existence was actually something which could be trained within the individual, and that people had the ability to choose to be happy and healthy, or at least less miserable and sickly, by acts of will. He reached many other similar concluding, but I will stop talking about William James and his essay here.
I read “The Energies of Men” as a teenager, and, as I looked at the grownups around me, I began to see that so many of them were living out roles that they either had chosen or had assumed were simply “the way things are “. Over the years, this idea intrigued me and I began reading Dale Carnegie, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, and others who had similar thoughts and opinions. Over time, my interest moved into physical fitness, and I began to see that the results obtained by people who improved their physical fitness meshed well with what I, myself, had read, observed, and experienced.
Over the years, it became more and more clear to me that a person's attitude and perception of their circumstances were contributing factors to their physical and mental health and wellness, as well as to their fiscal success. As I read more on the subject, and acquainted more knowledge from other sources, this idea hardened into belief. It has been with great pleasure to see more and more studies validating the ideas of William James and others. It has become a widely accepted fact that our attitudes and beliefs CAN AND DO influence our actual existences.
To quote Henry Ford: “Whether you think that you can, or that you can not, you are usually right.”
So, what does all this have to do with aging and the title of this little essay, “The Art of Acting Old”?
I have already mentioned that as I grew older, I personally saw how attitudes and beliefs could positively and negatively affect people's lives. One life I obviously observed close up was my own, and I also had close insight into the lives of a rather large, and varied, extended family. My own life has had its share of very troublesome events, and I found that how I met these events often determined how I got through them.
One event was aging itself, and the other was the discovery that I had pretty bad osteoarthritis.
As these two events converged to make life difficult and painful, I began to find myself slipping into “old man” mode. I modified my actions, began making excuses for my infirmities and perceived inabilities, and began a mental process of expecting others to perceive my decrepitude and make allowance for it. However, before I could go too far down this path, I reread “The Energies of Men” and several other sources and reviewed my personal experiences with meditation, yoga, and exercise. I also looked back over a career in the US Army that began in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 1966 where I learned one of the most important lessons of my life … whatever I believed I could do, I could actually do more.
I also harked back to a time in my life when a close friend of mine ran a giatric day care program and assured to me that most of the participants never should have wound up there … they had simply allowed themselves to grow old.
As I entered my 60's, I decided that I would not follow the time-worn pathway of the aging process in our society, but would find my own trails. I updated my exercise regimen to allow for age and arthritis, modified my nutritional intake, and increased my connections with the outside world. I quit expecting deference from others due to age and infirmity (perceived or real) and went about the business of living as I had lived in my 40's and 50's, with acceptance of those things which had changed, but without using them as an excuse for existence. I straightened my back, strengthened my muscles, and shouldered my share of life's burdens.
I am, in a sad way sometimes, rewarded as I look around at others my age. They are more and more stooped and bowed with each passing year, yet my head is high and my step is firm. They fear their existence and its end more and more while I go out and enjoy each day just as I have for years, looking forward to the excitements and pleasures the day will bring. They begin to fear that they will not be here much longer while I am planning what I am going to do in my 70's, 80's, 90's … and maybe beyond.
I have also found that simply refusing to “act my age” and demanding that I act in life and react to life as I did in earlier years has been an effective tool in combating many of the more deleterious effects of the aging process. Oh, I have my aches, my pains, and my wrinkles, but I do not allow them to define or limit my life for the most part. This is a conscious act on my part, but with time, it has become reliably unconscious, and the rewards are observable and palpable.
William Shakespeare said in Macbeth:
“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
None of us has the final say over when the play will end, but we do have control over how we play our parts, and I will assume control of the final ages of my life.