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Age, Aging, & Agency

By Joshua Wyatt, GCFP

In January while practicing Aikido, I suffered a lateral meniscus tear in the right knee. A few days later, while sitting on the front steps of my home, reaching across myself to the left with the right hand for my backpack, which was sitting on the ground, the right knee seized up painfully. I was unable at the time to extend the joint, and the slightest movement in the lower leg was excruciating. I scootched my way back inside, propelling with the left leg, sliding on my bottom, slinging the right knee with my right forearm and trying to keep the right ankle from moving at all with the left hand. A few hours later, after much experimenting in new ways of locomoting, and without any reduction in pain, I got stuck on the toilet and realized I would need assistance of some sort. After a trip to the emergency room, where I experienced the sweet relief of straightening the leg out somewhat, I was given a brace, some crutches, and for the first time in my post-toddler life, was left to figure out how to get around without weight bearing in both legs.

The next time I saw my Aikido teacher he teased me, “You’re not a young man anymore.” I am 33 years old.

My teacher’s statement has given me the chance for some interesting reflection. Of course I’m not six or twelve or twenty years old anymore, but where exactly is the line between young and old? And more importantly, who is it that gets to say? What about aging is there no resisting, and where in fact do we have some agency?
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Right now I can sense the contact of the bench that I’m sitting on and each foot on the floor. These sensations of contact, I am expending caloric energy both to create and to recognize them, and they indicate to me that there is something so much larger than me underfoot that I am drawn invariably toward it. In spite of the sense of stillness in the contact with the bench and floor, knowing that I am falling in the direction of the center of the Earth, and able to sense it, is sufficient to demonstrate that I am moving. Given that the Earth itself is moving around the sun, and that the sun itself is moving in its own trajectory, it is clear that even though I may move away from, and then back to, the same place, in fact I do not return to the same place ever. Here is an asymmetry: I am always moving, and never in the direction of returning. Of course I may speak about returning, as it is convenient and helpful to work within a smaller frame of reference than the universe entire.

Aging is saying that something is moving in this asymmetrical way. When I am no longer able to sense any movement, or move in any way under my own agency, then indeed, others will say that I have stopped aging altogether.

In this manner there is no real ability to remain alive and resist aging. Furthermore, I am always moving and so long as I live, I have some possibilities to do something coordinated with movement.

Friends of mine, about my age, are more and more frequently beginning to speak about themselves as being old, past their prime, not able to do what they used to. Sometimes they even say that they are past the point of learning new skills, as a friend of mine did when I asked him about pursuing his fascination with dance.

In my neighborhood are two billboards advertising a medical office nearby, each depicting someone in their 30’s. One is a man pushing a stroller uphill, the caption: “Morning walk, meet lower back pain.” The other, a woman jogging: “You just ran past our office, tendonitis followed.”

I am cognizant that I am now older than many incredibly popular celebrities, some of whose work even I highly respect. I saw the end of the last World Series last night, and I think probably almost all of the players were my junior. I harbor some fantasies of accomplishments in some specific fields of interest which I have barely begun, and notice some very successful people in these arenas my age or just a little older.

If I choose, I can establish a criterion of judgement in relation to the accomplishments of these others, and I can foster beliefs about aging in relation to things outside myself. I will then have no viable way to be content with how long I have lived, and what I have done in the meantime.

The philosopher C.S. Peirce said that belief is that upon which we are prepared to act. In this sense, I propose belief about myself to be analogous to Feldenkrais’s idea of the self image: that aspect we understand about ourselves, upon which we base our actions. I can believe practically anything I wish about myself, but that which I believe in the sense I am speaking of, I will act in accordance with.

In my work with the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education, I am usually setting out to clarify the self image, and construct it into something more realistic. I improve the thinking, sensing, and moving in a symbiotic fashion. Improvement in the accuracy of my sense of what is involved in a particular task allows me to enact a task with less counter motivation or parasitic activity. This reduces the amount of effort involved in a task, freeing me to be more spontaneous, creative, to do more actual work, and to go about developing pleasure and beauty. As I clarify the self image, I may also become aware of the previous image, as well as, at times, the previous rationale for it. I discover my previously sensible beliefs by learning even better ones.

Now, every individual has an age. At every instance they have had an age. Given that age is so potentially inexplicable from identity, it warrants that beliefs around what it means to age, be aging, or have a particular kind of age, can have profound effects with regards to how one goes about living.

One belief is that aging is to be resisted. As a culture there is a great deal of education, explicit and implicit, reinforcing this belief. As I stated above, there is no real ability to remain alive and resist aging, as aging is in fact a way of speaking about our constant movement, a quality of which is never returning. Therefore, a belief that I resist aging will result in a parasitic effort against my own process of living. It will be like trying to enact a movement, and its opposite at the same time. Furthermore, while I can count the years, and remember the past, these are just that: counting and remembering. If in my self-image, I organize around the concepts of a count, or a memory, with regard to the task at hand, then again I bring extra effort to a situation which does not call for it.

The belief, however, that aging is no more and no less than moving, that it points towards an inextricable link to living and motion, creates an opening for me to structure my belief around aging in the same way I would go about improving the self image at any other time. Where is my age apart from what I can sense and think and do about it now?

Little by little, practicing Awareness Through Movement®, and receiving Functional Integration® lessons, I learn better how to enact movement with pleasure and potency at the expense of some long-sustained efforting. Even during the time of my injury, I’ve had many interesting discoveries and improvements. Lesson by lesson I learn and practice and express awareness, always through movement—movement that is more precise, has more to do with the task at hand, and less to do with any abstract conception of myself that cannot be enacted presently. Through this committed practice of the Feldenkrais Method, I am developing this process as a habit, and I am understanding myself more and more as something in motion, who can always improve. I am growing the habit of framing my inquiries into digestible, observable frames, and expecting pleasure and gracefulness and potency, just as I do while practicing Awareness Through Movement. Aging, I’m learning, is a practice. Aging is something to improve on.

And so the question of my age is no longer something I have to try to solve. Trying to decide for certain whether or not I’m young or old is weighty, anxiety provoking, and irreconcilable. At the least it is unpleasant and boringly familiar. Instead, I’m playing with a moving target, where I can mix adventure with skill, and uncertainty with curiosity. Asking myself about my aging now, the habit of practice presents itself: I am going to find something pleasurable, by means of my own agency. The question of age, of a number to wear as a name tag for my identity, it is superfluous.

Joshua Wyatt is a Feldenkrais Practitioner in Oakland, CA.

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