October 15, 2017

Health : Plasticity

In August, I saw some of my old med school friends and I realized that I met them all a decade ago,
in 2007 when I first started school.  It made me think a lot about what's happened since then and whether I feel older.  In their thirties people start talking about how old they feel--can't stay out as late, can't drink as much, can't subsist on a few hours of sleep.  Maybe it's because I never had much capacity for those things to begin with, but I don't really feel like this makes me feel much older.  (Maybe in that way I feel the age I've always been).  I do feel more time, mainly because I've had more experiences.  But those experiences make me feel whatever it is that people refer to as young--the joy we often equate with youth.  As I've gotten physically older, I've found that for me happiness is less about being able to do the same things and more about finding newness, creating changes, and being aware of my growth.

A friend referred to this video recently, of a man versus his child, the challenge being to learn to ride a bike with the handlebars backwards: http://viewpure.com/MFzDaBzBlL0?ref=bkmk.  It took the man eight months to learn, and the three year old a few weeks.  It's an example of how the brain's plasticity and ability to learn new things decreases over time.  And really, it's a marker of age that we reference all the time--being set in our ways, slow to learn new things.

But I think that even if we're not as good at doing new things (and maybe for that reason), pushing to do new things gives a unique kind of satisfaction as we get older.  I didn't learn how to swim or ride a bike until I was in my mid-twenties.  While that kind of sucked and was definitely much harder to do when I was older, I was also much more aware.  Of myself--I didn't take it for granted that my body could just do these things.  And of my surroundings--water felt like a really different environment, as did being above the ground on two wheels.

What I (we?) miss about being young is this openness to our potential, and as we get older maybe it depresses us that our potential narrows.  Even though that is in some ways true, it doesn't mean we should stop being open to the potential we still have.  And when we do new things, the fact that they're harder now than they might have been in the past give them a different kind of appeal.  I've never wanted to stick with things that come easily, and sticking to that sentiment keeps me tied to how I was ten or twenty years ago.  

I find this especially easy to see in physical activity.  We're always talking about the aches and pains that we develop as we get older, how it's harder to recover.  And I know this is true, but I also try a lot more than I did when I was younger and in that way I still viscerally feel all the things our bodies can do.  While our ability to progress linearly in one thing might be less, we still have the ability to try as much as possible across the spectrum of things, if we want and if we commit.

This past summer, the ladies I regularly climb outside with (who, happily, are also great people and friends) and I started learning a type of climbing called traditional (trad) rock climbing.  This means that you climb rock walls that don't have any sort of gear or equipment already on them.  You carry your own gear, and as you climb, you place gear that you then attach yourself to.  This means that if you fall, it's the gear that you've personally placed that will catch your fall.  In addition to the actual climbing, you want to be confident that you've placed gear correctly for your safety in case of a fall.  So it's mentally pretty scary, and it takes a lot of technical skill.

You don't need to know me for that long to know that I'm bad at technical things.  When we did our first trad climb, I forgot everything anything ever taught me and felt overwhelmed by everything to remember.  Part of what I love about climbing is that it's cerebral in a physical, intuitive way, so that I can think things through with my body.  With trad climbing, there's a lot of actual mindful thinking about how to place your gear to ensure safety.  And there's no definitive check other than your own processing.

But over time, I've grown to love the newness it has given me.  The mental challenges it presents, and the physical places it takes me.  With this type of climbing, you can climb thousands of feet up mountains not at all accessible by hiking, purely by means of your own movements and placement.

Recently, my very patient and experienced friend let me be her trad climbing partner for a weekend in Yosemite.  Everyone knows that Yosemite is a special place, and sometimes that common knowledge makes me forget it.  Returning to it in any form always makes me remember: driving into the valley, hiking to the falls, snoeshowing its cliffs.  But trad climbing feels like a secret, a way of being in Yosemite that makes me breathe differently the rock formations, the height of them and depth of the air between them.  It's not something that comes easily, and I love that aspect of discovery about it.  It's something I have to push my brain and body with their declining plasticity to learn.  And that makes me hold the experience both more gently and tightly.

It's true that if I learned this type of climbing as a teenager, I'd be much better at it now.  It'll definitely take me more practice to grow comfortable with the skills.  But I'm also really grateful for the struggle that may not have been there when I was younger, for the awareness that this is new and scary and hard and worth it.

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