Poet Robert Browning once wrote, "Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be."
Today, I'd like to continue sharing with you my fondness for Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland's remarkable book "The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being." This gifted author (who died in 2014 at age 83) wrote the book when he was in his 70s, and used his own aging experiences as a launch pad for re-evaluating every aspect of his life.
It all began when he, his wife and their 19-year-old daughter Molly were riding on the subway in Manhattan. When a large, unsavory character tried to grope Nuland's daughter, he pushed the pervert away from her but then discovered that the frustrated creep had reached into the right-hand pocket of his own khaki trousers. Furious, the author angrily and instinctively grabbed the man's hand and squeezed down as hard as possible. He describes: "Aware that I was gritting my teeth with the effort, I did not let go until I felt more than heard the sickening sensation of bone grating on bone and then something giving way under the straining pressure of my encircling fingers. A baritone roar of pain brought me back to my seventy-one-year-old self, and made me realize that I had gone too far."
Molly's would-be groper immediately exited the subway car, but Nuland was left with the unwelcome realization that he was no longer a strong, fit man who would be able to defend or protect his family in a threatening situation. He had been lucky that the creep they encountered that day was unarmed and/or unwilling to physically pursue the conflict. This awkward event prompted the respected author and surgeon to explore what geriatric experts refer to as "successful aging."
Nuland doesn't like the idea that we all need to adapt to our changing or diminishing physical and mental abilities as we age. Instead, he urges us to "'attune,' in the sense of being newly receptive to signals welcome and unwelcome, and to a variety of experiences not previously within range, while achieving a kind of harmony with the real circumstances of our lives."
However, this doesn't mean that with each passing year we need to catalogue the things we can no longer do or the painful ways in which the years have transformed us. Instead, he urges us to pay close attention to the needs and abilities of both our bodies and our minds. In fact, he feels that this self-monitoring stage is what sets aging apart from the decades that went before. He says: "We are no longer at a stage where things will care for themselves; nothing can now be taken for granted. We have arrived at a time and place in our lives where we must study ourselves as we have never done before, take care of ourselves, and be attuned to ourselves in ways that are new to us and sometimes burdensome."
I don't know about you, but until I read his words I hadn't realized how much time we baby boomers now spend focusing on everything from our fiber intake to our Fitbit readouts. And almost as if he presciently knew that our country would be politically divided to an extent never before observed, Nuland also urges seniors to "filter out" responses and reactions that can either be unproductive or harmful.
In his words, "As we grow older, it seems to become less important, for example, to assert the rightness of every position we take or to express displeasure with every person whose opinions or character do not suit our fancy or measure up to our expectations."
Perhaps the reason I am so fond of Nuland's take on aging is that he considers the entire process of growing older from a philosophical perspective, rather than a solely physical one. What a lovely thought that we can gain wisdom as we lose the much-vaulted bloom of youth.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.