I was talking with a friend the other day when the conversation turned to bones. Brittle bones. Strong bones. Bones that could go pop with only the slightest provocation. How to keep bones healthy. My friend said, somewhat mournfully, how she realized and regretted that these days she found herself less willing to engage in certain activities like ice skating or horseback riding. She said she loves walking her dog, but had now placed very firm limits on other activities that used to fill her with joy.
I was struck by how, even though we should be considering ourselves just in the middle of our lives, for many of us in our 50s and 60s, life is already beginning to constrict. Since I write a lot about elder care (see my recent essay here: Elder Care Experts), I’m well-aware of how much our elderly population sees their horizons dwindling. They live among old people, sacrificing richness of community for physical security. Their movements are restricted to what can be handled with a walker or accommodated by their residence transport van. Everyday pleasures are constrained by hearing devices, poor vision, arthritic joints and crotchety digestions. I’m not saying life gets sad for the elderly, because I know from seeing my mother’s community how much warmth, laughter and spirit dwells within those walls and gardens. But it does get narrow.
What my friend said hit me hard. Yet I could empathize with her. She’d fractured her hip several years ago, and was now reticent to risk injury doing things that could get her hurt again. What made me sad was that, instead of finding ways to do the activities she enjoyed, even if in a circumscribed way, she’d deleted them from her life completely.
Saying “no” to what life offers has always seemed a dangerous slope to me. It’s so easy to turn away from scary or risky undertakings, to stay with what’s known and what’s safe. I don’t want to give in to my fears. In part that’s because I have so many of them that if I gave in, I might as well live in a closet for the rest of my life. Once I say “no” to an opportunity, I suspect I’ll say it again to the next one. And the next. Pretty soon I’ll have shut myself off from all sorts of fascinating experiences.
Yet saying “yes” means steeling myself for the unknown, which takes energy. Most of all, it takes practice. When I was younger, “yes” used to be simple for me. Any time I could do something I’d never done before I’d go for it without hesitation, whether hitchhiking through Italy or smuggling newspapers into Soviet Russia.
I remember the summer of my 18th year I joined friends to float the Wisconsin Dells. I’d never heard of the Dells and knew nothing about river rafting. When everyone else but me and my co-paddler pulled to shore above the falls, I didn’t hesitate. Standing on the cliffs watching didn’t look either interesting or fun; going over the falls did. We capsized almost immediately and I plunged down, sucked under by the tremendous force of water pounding on top of me. It seemed like ages before I finally popped to the surface like a cork, shook water out of my eyes and looked around. The faces staring down at me from the cliff-top, mouths agape, then shouting with relief, made me laugh with delight. I’d had a grand and vivid experience.
I’ve made a conscious decision not to give up those grand experiences as I get older. Saying “yes” to things that worry me is an acquired habit, one that I’ve worked at for a long time. And just like muscles sag when I don’t use them, my ability to step up to the plate will atrophy if I let the “yes” habit languish. So I keep seeking new ways to keep in practice. One thing I have noticed, is that the older I get, the more effort I have to put into keeping my “go for it” habit in fighting trim. These days I have to rationalize with myself a bit more, find new ways to encourage myself, remind myself how worthwhile it is simply to go forth and try.
I’m realistic enough to know that I will not always be able to indulge my passion for horseback riding, hiking, biking, and traveling at the same level I do now. But “yes-ness” applies to everything in life, including making new friends and learning new skills. It’s what makes me hopeful that I will remain a person who scoops up as much of life’s richness as her arms can hold. Best of all, living a life full of “yes” is something anyone can learn. All you have to do is say one word.