The words we use to express ourselves reflect the way we think. Thought patterns can take many forms and the characteristics of those forms lead to recognizable types of thought patterns such as “optimistic” or “pessimistic,” “fearful” or “confident,” “friendly” or “aggressive,” and many other categories. Life presents many experiences of events that are not the way we prefer them to be and the way we describe those conditions not only reveals our thought patterns, but predicts our way of dealing with them.
If such events are thought of as a “problem,” we are likely to be upset by them: disappointment, frustration, anger, or other kinds of pain will probably follow. If they are instead regarded as “challenges,” we may think of them as opportunities to look more closely at the elements of the situation as a first step in reconsidering the mismatch between what we want and what we have, in order to rearrange our desires, our resources and our approach to minimize the mismatch.
I confess that for much of my life I tended to take as a personal problem such things as non-starting cars, unresponsive computers, inconvenient mistakes on my part or that of others, and any number of other situations. Feelings of potential catastrophe, personal inadequacy, frustration and anger – among others – would ensue. Many things have helped me move away from such reactions, and none of them have had a stronger effect than observing my kids dealing with such events as if they were challenges, tending to take an analytical approach to the mishap, often actually physically taking a closer look at the item in question, seeking a more complete understanding of what actually was going on. When I saw their calm instead of the upset I would have experienced and observed their ability often to go on to remedy the issue, meeting the challenge, I began to emulate their approach and to develop a greater sense of possibly meeting such challenges myself. It seems that the adult should be modeling such skills for the youngsters but I have the great privilege of having kids who in many ways are wiser than I am. Other individuals, too, such as the professional firefighters our volunteer company works with, have modeled this kind of unemotional, interested, systematic and focused response to things “going wrong,” giving me the opportunity to learn to emulate their style.
As we age, we have the choice to reduce the range of our behaviors. We can become less social, less involved with things we used to do, to cut back on our physical and mental activities and let go of interests we used to have. Problems? Who needs them? Challenges? That’s for someone younger, we might think. The fact is, that slippery slope of avoiding challenges is a very dangerous one. Problems, yes; we should do all we can to minimize life’s inevitable upsets, and that’s best done by thinking about them differently. A good way to do that is to convert our thinking about them, making them be challenges: those we need to extend our health span!
One of the lessons most important to me when I began learning about yoga many years ago was the fact that the practice is as helpful to the stiff and awkward beginner as it is to the flexible and strong practitioner. Moving and positioning the body attentively, gently challenging present limits brings rewards, whatever the level of one’s skill. That’s a good model for the kinds of challenges we can all benefit from: choosing freely challenges to match our interests and intentions, taking care not to overextend or injure ourselves, not comparing ourselves with others whose accomplishments exceed our own, functioning with all the awareness of our on-going experiences we can muster, and observing – without getting hooked by judgements about them – the thoughts and feelings that arise as a result of our engagement with these challenges.
So many opportunities for rewarding challenges surround us. A friend suggested that a helpful element for this series of articles would be addressing the positive consequences of keeping mentally engaged. It’s an important part of aging well and there are many ways to do this. Volunteer to help with some community activity you value and you’re sure to find both social interaction (a big potential plus) and the chance to exercise your skills in figuring out the best way to accomplish a task and to remedy situations that present challenges. Take a class at NHERC (such as the one I’m offering, “Living Well As Long As Possible”); go to an informative presentation, such as those offered at Tutu’s House. Look on-line or in books or magazines for brain-training games and programs that provide practice in memorization, attentional focus, and figuring out puzzles. Opening ourselves to new information, to different ways of thinking about the ever-present questions of life, and the always challenging and engrossing possibility of re-evaluating our own life story: all low-cost, stimulating and entertaining ways to help ourselves to live well as long as possible.
If you’ve read earlier columns in this series, you know I’m a believer in the value of moving through the natural world on foot. That will be a key element in the course I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph. About 11 months ago I incorporated into my life a device called a “fitness tracker.” A number of different kinds are available; guided by relatives who had been using them and reviews of the various makes, I chose the Fitbit Charge HR. The “HR” denotes the capability to monitor heart rate and that was a key element in the advice I gleaned from a book I referenced in an earlier article, “Younger Next Year.” This device gives me on-the-wrist real-time information about my heart rate, the number of steps I have taken, the miles I’ve walked, the number of “floors” I’ve climbed (that is, the number of elevation gains in units of 10 feet), and an estimate of calories burned, all since the midnight that started the day I’m in. When I synch the device with my computer, much more data is available, including the activity level for the day, broken into time segments, my sleep patterns and way more than you’re probably interested in knowing about. The key thing here is that the device itself presents a challenge to me. Its presence reminds me to move throughout the day every day and on a three-day backpack trip I took last week, it reinforced my efforts to deal with challenge as it recorded 47,393 steps, 24.15 miles and 391 floors (that is, 3,910 feet of vertical elevation gain) – challenges only exceeded in intensity by the data from a day of fighting fire on the rim of Waipi`o Valley earlier this year.
So think about it: what can you enjoy doing today that would be a bit of a stretch for you? What physical, mental, social or spiritual activity would draw you to do a little more than you’re accustomed to doing? Maybe, as you finish reading this, you will gently align your body, focus on releasing any physical tension not needed to keep you comfortably positioned, take a good number complete breaths and let the direction come to you. Have a good time with whatever it is!
© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD, 2015