Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘age’

Reflections of an Aging Athlete

Old. Yup. “The Heir” turns 26 today. “Lovely Daughter” is 24 and my doppelgänger “Lil’bingo” is 22. My body is screaming from yesterday’s CrossFit WOD–I ran a mile. I’m answering emails and questions from CrossFit friends about CF in the “Master’s” category. I am closer to 55 than 54, closer in age to my cataract patients than my school-age patients. My Dad had a quadruple bypass at 54. Old.

How do you do this “old thing” anyway? It seems I don’t have an owner’s manual for myself, just like I didn’t have an owner’s manual for the kids. What am I to expect now? What is it that lies just ahead, and what then beyond that? Is this muscle soreness a freak thing, the anomaly, or is it a harbinger of things to come? How about fitness gains? I’m now 9 years into my CrossFit journey. How much longer can I expect to achieve PR’s? As I contemplate these questions how far forward should I allow my gaze to roam?

There are no answers to those questions, of course. Any answers only lead to the next set of the same. To look too far beyond a couple of tomorrows is as dangerous as it is to look back beyond a couple of yesterdays. Looking behind even a little bit risks the indulgence of regret, what has always seemed to me to be a sure recipe for sadness. I have written elsewhere that to go even further back, beyond Creation or the Primordial Soup or the Big Bang is an invitation to madness.

To look too far into the future is to invite desire, to risk the creation of wants that grow into something that feels like need. If or when these fail to materialize a different type of sadness arises, this one born of resentment. If one projects these too far into the future, to retirement, to rest, to redemption and beyond, the risk of madness can arise once again.

I surely do not know the answer to the question of how to age well. There is no map for the journey that lies ahead, no cosmic GPS. I have only the strategies that have served me thus far, and the hope that they will serve me yet. I have faith, and that faith allows me to resist the temptation to look either too far behind or too far ahead. Faith is the vaccine against madness.

And I am happy. I realized it once again in a phone call with a dear friend, met through Crossfit, and once again when I said goodnight to my darling Beth last night. I am happy because I have very little desire and even less regret; I want what I have and this inoculates me against both resentment and regret.

Yes, indeed, I am older, but I have at least one more today. That’s just what I wanted.

 

The Hard Turn At Mile Marker 49

Man, turning 50 has not been an easy proposition. I’ve been turning 50 since the day after my 49th birthday and quite frankly I haven’t been doing such a great job of it. The highway between mile markers 49 and 50 seems to be strewn with all manner of psychological speed bumps and potholes, pretty much all of which I’ve placed there myself.

Why is this? Why so much angst about 50? I didn’t really have any issues with 18, 21, 30, or 40, at least not any that I was so keenly aware of. In fact, I don’t recall ever thinking about the process of TURNING any of those milestone ages, not a minute spent thinking about the run-up to any of those birthdays. I suppose 40 might have presented an opportunity for at least a little introspection, or at least a little taking stock, but “turning40″ angst was preempted in the course of a single ride on a chair lift in Utah the week prior to my 40th birthday. My chair-mate, noting his own near existential angst at the prospect of turning 40 several years prior shared the wisdom a priest friend had offered. 40 is when your still healthy, strong, and vibrant body meets the experience and wisdom of your now mature mind. That worked for me! 40 made sense after that.

In a dazzling display of prescience and foreshadowing, my lovely bride Beth responded to my epiphany with “wait ’til he turns 50! That’s gonna be a problem!” Shortly thereafter she contracted the mother of all cases of pneumonia and tried to die on me. Any little bit of an issue with turning 40 got pretty much short circuited in the elation that accompanied her recovery.

And yet, here I am. Turning 50.

What’s the big deal you ask? It’s just a number. You’re a January baby. It’s nothing more than another calendar to throw out.  One more tax return. What’s the problem here? Aren’t you the guy always looking forward, wanting what you have? The “no regrets” guy? Cut the crap! Find your balls. Snap out of it.

To which I respond: sure! There you are going all left-brain/left nut on me. Trying to impose logic and rational thought on what is clearly a right-brain, visceral “feel” kinda thing. It’s all about the right nut, the squishy can’t get your hands around it illogical nonsensical unease that resists both explanation and resolution.

My own left-brain gets it. Hari, one of my Crossfit buddies, nailed the rational aspect of turning 50. According to Hari our first 50 years are all about preparing. We spend our lives preparing either ourselves or someone else for something that is yet to come. We grow and get ready for kindergarten, so that we can prepare for grade school. Grade school begets junior high where we get ready for high school. High school prepares us for college which leads to job and adulthood. We then transition to the task of preparing others, our children, and spend the next however many years engrossed and engulfed in that pursuit. 50 is when we are done with the preparing. 50 is when we we exit Route Preparation and begin our journey on Route Me. At 50 we can learn for the sake of learning, not because we need to knock off a pre-req. We exercise and eat for the here and now, for how we are hoping to feel right at the moment. The first 50 years are about preparing; the next 50 are about living.

Why then, if I get that, am I having so much trouble TURNING 50?

As I’m sure you’ve gathered if you’re spending any time here on Random Thoughts, I am a physician by day. I finally think I figured it out one day in the office when one of my patients mentioned that she was having some issues with turning 60. We took a little detour, talked a little while about our “turning” issues rather than her eyes. 60 meant “old” to her, and old was more than a little frightening. She didn’t see “old” in the mirror, and didn’t want to think about any part of “old”. Her tactic? Classic–She simply decided that she was younger and told everyone she’s  55! How about me, she asked. You’ve made it. Successful practice and a wonderful professional reputation, healthy family, a marriage to be envied. Your biggest problem should be deciding how to celebrate! How will you mark this milestone, this success?

And there you have it. There, in that lovely compliment from a patient I barely know, was the issue. How indeed would I mark this milestone? The cartoonist would have put an enormous light bulb over my head, for here was at once the solution and the problem. I couldn’t say how I was going to celebrate turning 50 because I can’t celebrate in the way that it turns out I always thought I would, and that fact lies at the base of all of my angst, all of my discomfort, all of my difficulty in turning 50.

Physicians play a game early in their lives called “delayed gratification”, a game in which they willingly put up with the hardships of training and postpone most of the trappings of success. Tiny apartments and old clunker cars are OK because there is a world of plenty just over the horizon, a reward for both the sacrifice and the success that students of medicine encounter on their journey. Their preparation, as Hari would say. Once out in the real world, out of medical school and finished with residencies and fellowships, both the willingness and the ability to play “delayed gratification” slip away to be replaced by a sense of pride in having played,  not terribly fond memories incentive to never play again.

There’s the rub–I am once again playing “delayed gratification” and I simply can’t even consider doing some of the things I thought I could think about to mark this milestone. You know, classic 50 year old dumb guy birthday stuff like, I dunno, buying a Porsche. I don’t think I’d actually do that, but I DID always think that at 50 I would have been able to decide NOT to buy a Porsche, even though I could have if I really wanted to. Even the more meaningful stuff I’ve talked about to mark turning 50, stuff like climbing Kilimanjaro with my sons or accepting that invitation from Geoff Tabin to teach native surgeons how to do cataract surgery in Nepal, I’m not going to do those things because I CAN’T, because I am once again playing the game of “delayed gratification”. I might never have done any of those things, or any of a number of other things I might have thought of, but I always thought I’d be able to decide, that I COULD if I wanted to.

I can’t, and I find that I resent that. It makes my sad, and both of these feelings make my left-brain more than a little unsettled, for there is no rational response. No solution. No pithy sentence to conclude this particular Random Thought on an up note. At the end of the day there will be nothing other than sucking it up, moving on, and getting over it, getting over myself. There will be nothing other than trying to play the game of “delayed gratification” just as well at 50 as I did as a much younger man, for in the end I really have no other rational choice. I will have to hope, to try to be much better at BEING 50 than I have been at TURNING 50.

Because I’ve really sucked at turning 50.