In my last post, I wrote about my “accelerating physical decline,” and how difficult it is to come to terms with that.
Also, I raised the question of how my public identity has been tied for so long to my running achievements—so what is left when my physical prowess is gone?
In my more enlightened moments, I’ve realized two things: first, that relying on the approval of others for a validation of my worth is superficial and transient; second, that what running has given me is more than an identity as an elite runner. Running enabled me to see that I have inner strength, not just physical strength!
A person’s spirit need not diminish with their body’s weakening—it can become stronger. I think of incredible survival stories that have come from people who experienced the Holocaust, or recovery stories from people who were (supposedly) on the brink of death with terminal disease. Such people should have perished, but they lived because of their powerful desire to live and the courage they found within themselves.
It’s mysterious, this will to live, and the way it’s stronger in some people than in others. We could say it’s just the instinct put into every living thing. But clearly, it’s also a choice that some people make when they’re in difficult circumstances, or suffering, or—just getting older.
What does that cliché expression “aging gracefully” mean to me? I think people are happy when they have a sense of being whole and balanced in all three parts of themselves—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. For athletes, especially, this sense of integrity can be hard to achieve when injuries interfere with running. I felt this acutely when I first tore my ACL, went through two knee surgeries, and had to accept that regular running and competition were over for me.
I think aging gracefully means the ability to seek and embrace a new equilibrium where one can still maintain the sense of integrity. Physically this can include finding new activities or a new level of activity that our bodies can handle.
I say to myself: I’m a new animal. Can I adapt to a changing body? A changing pace? Maybe even walking instead of running? Can I accept a new equilibrium, at the same time knowing this equilibrium will be frequently recalibrated? Can I still love my body and be thankful for it?
Saying “Yes” to all the questions above requires a positive attitude that includes gratitude and acceptance.
Practising gratitude, I become aware of how rich my life is. Physically, I’m thankful for my overall good health. But part of what I called “the will to live” is noticing how much I love to be alive. Even if I can no longer run, my senses are still fully alive. Every day I enjoy not just the beauty of my home environment, but the things all my senses bring to me—the smells of wet earth and decaying leaves, the calls of birds at Burrard Inlet, the welcome warmth of the winter sun in the afternoon. On rainy days I can go out in a waterproof coat or with an umbrella, and feel part of a wild, powerful Nature so much bigger than I am. I have my cozy apartment to return to, where I can cook delicious comfort food, read a never-ending supply of good books, or listen to whatever music suits my mood.
Many former elite runners show their gratitude by giving back to the sport that developed their characters and gave them so many opportunities. They are coaches, officials, running club leaders, or running shop owners. Running is not about themselves any longer—it is about contributing their knowledge and encouragement and passing the torch.
Finding a new equilibrium implies accepting our new age-related limitations, and also knowing we have to continuously adapt to change.
For me, acceptance also has a darker side that many people don’t want to talk about or think about. I mean acknowledging not only the negative aspects of aging, but the inevitable end of it, the brutal fact of our mortality. Albert Camus wrote: “There is no love of life without despair of life.” I also remember Dylan Thomas’s great poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1952), with its repeated line of rebellion: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Camus’ expression “the despair of life” makes me think of two comedic geniuses, actor Robin Williams and writer David Foster Wallace. Both had extraordinary insights about people and how they behave, and this was part of what made them outstandingly funny human beings. They both reached a pinnacle of success in their careers and were loved and admired by countless people. Also, both suffered from clinical depression. I’m not qualified to say how much that disease affected the decision each of them made to commit suicide.
I believe that it is natural to feel despair about our mortality, although I am not claiming to have any understanding of what a clinically depressed person goes through. I’m simply saying we need to be able to talk about these negative feelings honestly.
The Only Story
Recently I read a novel by British writer Julian Barnes entitled The Only Story (2018). Barnes, a brilliant, prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, is perhaps most famous for his book Flaubert’s Parrot. He doesn’t shy away from writing about dark subjects. The Only Story is a love story that begins with a rather aimless young man’s affair with a married woman thirty years his senior. She becomes an alcoholic, and the novel turns bleak in the extreme.
In the end, I found the desolate tone of the story too much, even though Barnes’s writing was masterful. However, what I loved about the book was a passage about panic—the existential panic that most of us feel at times. This passage is narrated by the young man of the story from his perspective many years later. (I had to condense this passage, to the detriment of its perfect rhythm.)
I didn’t realise that there was panic inside her. . . . I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realise, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to . . . minimise it . . . and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us . . . The panic takes some to God, others to despair, some to charitable works, others to drink, some to emotional oblivion, others to a life where they hope that nothing serious will ever trouble them again. (p. 90)*
I could relate to this passage because chronic insomnia means I spend many wakeful middle-of-the-night hours, when it’s difficult for my mind not to sink into whirlpools of negative thought that sometimes escalate to panic. I recognized the truth in Barnes’s passage and found it comforting because it reminded me that my mental torment is part of the human condition.
Indeed, in those strange dead hours of the night I sometimes feel uncannily close to the great mass of humanity all over the Earth, both the ones living and people long gone that I’ve only read about. Sometimes during those nights I’m overwhelmed with troubling thoughts about how most human beings, in most times and places on Earth, have suffered so much more than I ever have. Recently I felt haunted by the characters in a book by Irish writer Nuala O’Faolin. Her novel My Dream of You is set in two time periods, one modern and the other just after the worst potato famine years of the 1840s. What happened to the Irish peasants during the potato famine is so horrible I can’t erase it from my mind.
Even now, in 2021, when I lie awake, exhausted but unable to slip into sleep because of my churning anxieties, I think about how comfortable and safe I am compared to some people in in my own city, Vancouver, who may be trying to sleep outside on a sidewalk or a park bench.
Covid-19 adding to depression
Recently I was talking to Keith about how Covid-19 has affected me emotionally. My life since the onset of Covid-19 hasn’t been changed as much as the lives of many others. I have my good health and no one close to me has died or dealt with serious illness. I’m not a front-line worker or caregiver facing trauma and long hours of work every day, nor am I a parent worried about my children’s social development and education. I’m not completely isolated as many older people are.
Even so, at times I feel depressed. I miss the live interactions with many friends and acquaintances. It’s easy to add guilt to my negative emotions, thinking I don’t have the right to complain. Yet as Keith wisely said, the suffering of others doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to have my own emotions. Lots of people are experiencing similar thoughts and emotions to mine.
For me, acceptance and finding my new equilibrium means acknowledging not only my physical limitations, but also my moments of emotional weakness. There is no point in adding self-chastisement and guilt to the burdens we carry. I strive to have a positive attitude most of the time, and to surround myself with people, books, and other media that nurture me. And I remember to be grateful, especially for the intimate relationships that allow me to be open about all my emotions.
* Barnes, Julian. The Only Story. © 2018. Penguin Random House Canada Ltd.