Yesterday I decided to live some more. No, I was not on the verge of ending my life. More like being on the verge of, well, sort of abandoning my life.
Here’s the deal. I turned 86 a couple of weeks ago. Until pretty recently, I have felt like I was, what, maybe in my sixties or something. Sure, I had plenty of dents and dings and scratches here and there, but for the most part I felt robust and sufficiently athletic. But then, in what seemed like about fifteen minutes time, I have become absolutely riddled with the famous “aches and pains” of old age. Like overnight, my joints hurt when I walk, my stride has shortened, my posture takes on a forward tilt, my breathing gets tight climbing stairs, my hands get all arthritic and yelp back at me when I try to open a jar lid. Dammit, I just hurt all over.
Day before yesterday I played golf, as I had the day before. By the middle of the second hole, my lower back hurt so badly I quit before putting out. I couldn’t swing a club. I could barely even walk. In fact, I hurt so much that I waved over one of the maintenance guys driving past in a power wagon and had him haul my sorry carcass back to the clubhouse. Then I shuffled in little mincing steps to my car in the parking lot and folded my creaking body into the driver’s seat, slumping there for a minute or two afterward to catch my breath. The expletives that flared ferociously in my mind do not need to be put in print.
But let me assure you that this piece is not what we superannuated folks refer to as “the organ recital”—the self-pitying TMI chronicles of bodily woes which, all too often, dominate social conversation among people getting older and older.
This piece is about deciding. And it is decidedly not a topic that applies only to older people. As I think back over my life, I realize that who I have become and what I have experienced is pretty much the sum of all the decisions that I have made—and the decisions that I have ducked. Oh, sure, there was some dumb luck, some pure chance, some serendipity, and some generous and unmerited support mixed in there. But the larger thrust has been shaped by moments when I recognized that I had to make a choice—I alone—to do this rather than that. Or that, rather than this. And those choices have irrevocably shaped my life.
That is true for all of us, of course. What schools we chose, what trade we chose, what spouse we chose, what parenting we chose, what mid-course adjustments we chose, what end-game we chose in transition from work to post-work pursuits. But what strikes me today is that I still have to keep on deciding, even after all those earlier decisions are firmly embedded in my past and now shape my present. After I had decided in retirement to be a writer, I thought I was done with deciding.
Not by a long shot. Yesterday morning when I awoke with prickly aches and pains that aggravated the simple act of getting out of bed, I realized I had a decision to make—a really monumental decision, actually. Would I accept that this is my new reality—creaky, hurting, stiff, unhappy. Or would I drag myself to the fitness center to reinstitute that long, boring workout routine designed to strengthen my vulnerable lower back, and then jump into the pool for a really vigorous workout with Styrofoam dumbbells.
One day later, sitting here writing this, I realize that it was a fateful point of decision. Had I elected the oh-so-appealing transitory succor of sitting beside the fireplace in our bedroom savoring a second cup of excellent coffee (always with light cream, for me) instead of schlepping off to the fitness center, I would have been choosing abandonment of my life. A few more repetitions of that decision, and the gradual decrepitude of my body and mind would accelerate into free-fall.
I suppose that making the decision I did was facilitated by having made the same decision literally thousands of other early mornings, choosing to strap on my running shoes and go out on a rainy or freezing morning for four or five miles of grudging but essential jogging around town. All of those decisions, and my decision yesterday, benefitted from my having learned a compelling re-conceptualization of that particular decision. Don’t ask: “Do you want to go do a workout?” (Of course not.) Ask the more life-giving question: “Do you want to feel the way you do just after you finish a workout?”
Now the trick is to keep remembering that I have to make that deliberate decision every day. Even more importantly, I have to stay keenly alert for other necessary decisions camouflaged as idle notions, that I might fail to act upon. For as Harvey Cox famously warned, “Not to decide is to decide.” And at this point, it’s way too late to abandon my life to the random consequences of indecision.