At the time of this writing, in the winter of 2010, I am 57 years of age. I start with that because this is an age where people wrestle with thoughts about whether or not they are getting old. It is also a time where we can stand poised on the beginning of reinventing our lives, determined to age well, embrace change, and keep learning.
One half of the equation is that age is a state of mind, yet as an educator, I think the other half has to do with whether or not we become life long learners even if we haven't already developed those skills. Fortunately for those of us who want to stay young, or reinvent part of our lives, neuroscience, transformation and creativity have three ideas we can work with.
Flexibility is the Key to Youthfulness
The message from neuroscience is our brains are designed for flexibility. The word that science uses is “plastic. ” Neuroscientists have a phrase that can have an important effect on how we think about ourselves and learning. “What fires together wires together.”
My favourite story is about a man who had a stroke, and then his son took him to Mexico where, because there was lack of facilities, he set up a physical therapy routine where he had his father get on the ground and learn to move again as a child learns to move, by crawling. Long story short, the man came back to a fully functioning life, and only after he died did the doctors learn that a significant portion of his brain had been burned out by the stroke. This flew in the face of the wisdom of the times, because the idea was we got old, our brains deteriorated, and that was just the way it was, and if you had a stroke you had six months and after that you were not going to get any better. Now it is common stroke therapy to have patients crawl, and the people are regaining movement after a decade.
What is to be learned from this story? I think two things: first and most important is that as we continue to face life challenges we need to remain flexible in our ideas about things and what can be done. If this man had accepted the wisdom of the time his father would have died in Mexico with only a small part of his life – as it was he went back to work and had another good 10 years of life as he designed it. If our brains are plastic we can keep learning and the web allows all the information of the world to be at our finger tips – there is no reason any of us have to accept outside limitations – we can learn and we can grow.
Creativity is a Group Endeavor
Gone are the days when we have since had to go to the woods and lock ourselves away for years by ourselves in order to be creative. Creativity is not often a solitary act. Muscicians learn from each other and get better, groups of women come together to build scrapbooks, incorporating each others ideas, men work together on projects. Even in some instances great poetry and writing, etc. when researched, turn out to be an interaction between the author, editors, and friends.
As we age we tend to stay within the groups of people we know, but if we can force ourselves to join new groups they can be the key to our creativity and zest for life staying at a high level. This is especially true if we join groups with people of different ages, as humans do best when we are flexible enough to learn from those who grew up in different contexts and therefore have different world views.
Tension Precedes Transformation
Our ability to reinvent our lives at any moment fascinates me. What isn't discussed much is that it usually is preceded by getting over a tension of some kind. Reading whatever I can, from the spirituality of the East, the science of the West, and the viewpoint activists in South America, I have come to some conclusions. I believe our body and mind and spirit systems are hardwired to participate in transformative experiences. Tension, loss, extreme frustration, being or feeling overwhelmed, any one of those may be an immediate precursor to transformation. Can you think of an ah-ha moment in your life? Chances are, just before that moment happened something else was going on that made you tense. Like the waves on the sand, our ability to move forward ebbs and flows, with internal energy backing up before it explodes in new ways.
Getting older brings its own tensions and we have the choice to turn them in on ourselves as so many do when we decide to hate the changes we can't avoid, or we can choose to embrace the changes and look for what creative potential may come with them. Within every context there will be people who do well and enjoy life as they find it – they are the ones who have been able to transform and continue.
Three Ideas Lead to the Key to Youthfulness
I believe that humans are hardwired to change and grow throughout life. I think Western culture had it wrong when we thought that we would get to a certain time and then slow down and relax for the rest. Lives filled with nothing but enjoyment seem hollow to me in comparison to lives built on growth and transformation. The three ideas in this article weave together to help those of us growing older continue to build a creative and interesting life First, we need to consider the fact that our brain is flexible in that we keep learning. Second, we remember that in order for us to be our best creative selves we need to work in groups. Finally transformation will continue throughout our lives and we need to embrace the decisions and tensions that precede it. Rather than making our lives smaller as we grow older we have the option to expand them, to become different than we are now, relate to others in new ways, connect to new ideas, etc – these things are true no matter what our physical capacity may be- but they take the courage to do it.
I am not neuroscientist, nor a researcher in either transformation or creativity, but I do consider myself a lifelong learner. The exciting part of learning to me is to bring home to my daily life ideas and concepts that are vast and interesting. As an educator, I see my task as identifying ties and connections between concepts in order to help them work for other people as well as myself. These are things I hope to continue throughout the changes that come as I work to stay flexible, full of creative, transformative potential – how about you?
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