Learning and Re-learning




I fell the other day. It was stupid, really. I was carrying heavy theatrical platforms, loading them into a pick-up truck and taking them from a recent performance venue to storage until the next show. The route required descending a couple steps. My hip twisted and I crashed to the pavement, ultimately sporting a black eye and some significant bruises to my elbow, hip and knee. My pride suffered perhaps the worst blow of all. Dumb, Bob; really dumb.

I never should have been carrying such a heavy load and I definitely paid the price for my short-sightedness. It could have been much worse—no concussion, I fell on my left side so the recently repaired rotator cuff on my right side was unaffected, and the hip that twisted is the one that had been surgically replaced and then twice dislocated. But it stayed tightly in place. Yes, it could have been much worse.

The Emotional Toll of Falling

When you’re in your seventies, everyone cautions that falling is something to assiduously avoid. Indeed, as a pastor who has ministered to countless elderly persons, I’ve seen this firsthand. The healing process can be long and the physical trauma that comes with falling often leads to other life-threatening medical challenges. More significantly, perhaps, is the emotional toll that plays on your mind when you fall. One of the most profound articles I have read on this subject was written by best-selling novelist Dani Shapiro. It appeared some months ago in the New York Times. I highly recommend it.

Entitled “Why My Fall Made Me Feel So Ashamed,” Shapiro captures the thoughts that flood one’s consciousness after a fall. She writes, “Each step felt treacherous, as if the world had tilted on its axis and I alone were about to slide off. It was a familiar feeling, [like] a shadow had revealed itself, a powerful reminder that life is uncontrollable and unpredictable and we are fragile… When we fall, we are consumed with embarrassment and its more toxic cousin, shame. Mortified by our fragility and its accompanying whisper of aging and death.”

Indeed, one of the hesitations that voters have about two octogenarian Presidential candidates is that aging can change things quickly and without warning. In my case, these deep and dark emotional musings are accompanied by the idea of my own foolishness since my fall was rather predictable (I even jokingly asked my doctor if he had a cure for terminal stupidity). As my black eye faded and my bruises healed, I did a lot of thinking about my fall and what it means at this particular stage of my life and how I can avoid such situations in the future.

Life’s Many Stages Have Subtle Shifts

When I was young, I was content to learn that there were three stages in life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. As I got older, I realized that these broad categories could be broken into sub-groups to better describe life’s chapters. Hence, terms like pre-teen (and, later, “tween”), young adulthood, middle age and the “catch-all” term for older adults—seniors—served as better descriptors of the changes we experience as we age. But, I also came to understand that even such categories are incomplete at best: a vigorous, recently retired sixty-five year old has very different needs and capabilities than an eighty year old who has spent his retirement years in mostly sedentary pursuits.

At this stage of my life, I better understand that I cannot rely on past patterns of what I can and cannot do, but must regularly monitor my changing physical and emotional capacity and apply what I learn to my present opportunities. Challenges I could address in previous seasons become more of a struggle, require more preparation, take longer to accomplish and can lead to mishaps that interrupt activities or plans for the future. Such self-assessments need to be done on a regular basis and their results applied realistically so that I can appropriately order my days to be both productive and (here’s the rub) safe. It is incumbent upon me to identify how subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in my physical, mental and emotional state might dictate changes in behavior.

This whole process is further complicated for men because of programming we grew up with—the ideal of the rugged individualist who can make things right by sheer force of will, the strongman type who cannot admit to weakness—physically, mentally or emotionally. Though often based on outdated understandings of masculinity, these “tapes” can play over and over in our heads, are deeply rooted in our male psyches, and hold powerful sway as to how we should structure our current behavior. It is this re-learning on which I wish to focus.

Descendants of the Marlboro Man

Remember the virile Marlboro Man? His character hawked cigarettes—hardly a call for a healthy lifestyle. Yet, growing up I remember the subtle pressure to be like this fictious, macho figure and rush in headlong with the notion that “I can fix it alone.” Note the subtle shifting of words from Donald Trump’s famous pronouncement, “I alone can fix it.” The change carries a very different meaning, but as my platform-tumble demonstrates, either wording can lead to calamitous outcomes. As we age, we need to increasingly rely on others. Sometimes, it takes a village.  

As we age and our capacity diminishes, learning our limits is essential but relearning what it means to be a man is even more important.

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As we age and our capacity diminishes, learning our limits is essential but relearning what it means to be a man in such situations is even more important. The day I fell, I failed to assess how my increased age, accompanied by some sustained medical procedures that impact my endurance and reduced muscle mass (more about this in future posts) must factor into my ability to move bulky objects without risking injury. Yes, moving those platforms was really dumb—not twenty years ago, maybe; but now, at this stage of my life--definitely. I should have sought additional help. More accurately, I should not have participated at all.

But I have learned. And it is a lesson I have earned the hard way. Now, it is incumbent upon me to pay attention. Heretofore, I commit to carefully and regularly assessing my current health status, weighing the tasks that I agree to undertake vis-à-vis my current capacity, and dismiss the manipulative masculine conditioning that has so often influenced my behavior. For us men, learning and relearning these lessons are not always easy, but they are essential tools as we seek productive and satisfying engagements in our later years.

  • R.V. Thanks for your comment on my blog. Your harrowing story was quite triggering for me. I could just imagine that moment when you looked up and saw your neighbor beginning to topple over, knowing there was little you could do to stop his tumble. I appreciated your concern for him, but you never mentioned how you faired in this incident. I hope you were okay.
    I wanted to comment on your remark, “from toddlers on, falls are visited upon us at any moment, at any age.” True, that. But I would add that when you are in your 70’s such falls take on a very different meaning in two ways: First, due to the natural aging process, we don’t have the physical resilience to recover as quickly; hence, recovery can be much longer and more intense than in earlier years. Second, as Dani Shapiro reminds us, there is an emotional toll to falling at this age which evokes all kinds of fears from shame to failing to trust your own body. And this is further compounded for men when we cannot shake the old tapes that play in our heads about how we are the stronger sex and shouldn’t have fallen in the first place. B

  • Having undergone lower lumbar spine surgery in late 2022, this now 70-year-old male (who lives alone) has necessarily avoided undertaking certain heavy-lifting tasks on his own.

    One such task involves the seasonal installation or removal of a window air conditioner weighing 80-plus pounds. It is either hauled up or down a basement staircase, something I could effectively handle on my own, if needed. However, caution being preferable over valor, I had asked for and enlisted the help of a male neighbor over 10 years my junior.

    We were carrying the unit up the stairs, he in front with me behind, when he unexpectedly missed the last step and roughly fell backwards, ending up in a sitting position. The full weight of the AC shifted to me. I held on, sincerely praying my good-hearted neighbor was not hurt. Minus a bloody scrape along his forearm (and weathering the humble embarrassment of the fall), he avoided serious harm.

    The moral of the episode? There is none. From toddlers on, falls are visited upon us at any moment, at any age.

    [It may, however, be worth mentioning this: Trump likely was dropped on his head as a child by a ruthlessly overbearing father.]

  • Bob, as always, you share profound personal wisdom, with both your experiences and calling on the best writing of others.
    Making accommodations as I approached my 79th birthday have included: installing gutter guards to free me from ladder climbing to clean out leaves and taking breaks after 15 minutes of work, whether mowing the lawn or raking.
    A friend recently tried to scamper up a cliff following grandkids and fell, seriously injuring his back. We’ve spoken since and he now resolves to honor his age and let the kids do their thing and merely be the admiring viewer. Driving at night has become problematic, especially in rain and unfamiliar places. All these changes must be perceived and accounted for, and I need to be able to say “enough” or “please lend me a hand”. Or, as our sexual functioning changes, to be creative in sharing our affections. Yeah, men let’s acknowledge this!!

  • Hi Bob. Thanks for sharing your story. My path has been somewhat different health wise as apart from the normal sore arthritic back of a 66 year old , everything is working, albeit more slowly.

    As a man who ran his last Ultramarathon at 55, and Marathon at 57, I found that I had nothing really left to prove, and the run’s themselves ( and the endless training) were becoming more struggle than enjoyment, so I gave up and retreated to my treadmill and the occasional 10 K

    A really good friend of mine, without my knowledge and approval, registered me for a local half marathon several months ago , that is taking place on May 25th.

    He commented after saying he registered me for the event, “once you reduce what you are doing with your fitness you may never get it back”.

    So three months ago, I went out and registered with a race training group, and went out on my first training run. There were 60 people in the group, ( mostly 30 something women) and finished dead last. I was discouraged, and at that point gave up and headed back to my treadmill

    So this friend who registered me for the race and I do a lollygag run on Saturdays — usually 5 miles at a snails pace gave me his ” Once you reduce …. ” pitch , and said “lets double our distance .. let’s go for 10 miles. On a lark I said ok, with the option i gave myself that I could turn back at any time .

    I wasn’t prepared for this long a run and had to beg for water from a lady cyclists( she gave me her advice .. you should have been prepared (lol))

    Well I did the 10 miles with room to spare, and on subsequent weeks added additional miles in a weekly long run until I actually covered the 21.1K two weeks ago

    I’m not setting any Olympic records, but i will finish, most likely one of the last in fact to finish but that’s ok. I’m still in the game.

    My life lesson here is that aging is inevitable, and at 66 I will be in the oldest age category of participants. I am happy I can still participate. I had set my limit as the treadmill and was inspired to pick it up, not to run an ultramarathon or marathon, but to assess what I can do realistically and not to give up on myself.

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