HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated May 20, 2012
Lately, I’ve been hearing upsetting news about classmates, friends and relatives my age who are suffering from serious health problems. While I know that we have reached the age of greater vulnerability, it is still quite unsettling when it happens.
In the late 1950s, when my classmates and I were in prep classes at the Ateneo, we would run down the corridors and climb the monkey bars in the schoolyard with glee and with mischief on our minds. We were bubbling with life. Our cup of health was running over like a fountain that would never dry up. Youth was what we were all about — boisterous, carefree, wild and unhampered. We were in the pink of health.
Getting old, being sick with life-altering illnesses never crossed our young minds. We could not relate to the idea of a life-long illness. If it came to mind at all, such a thought was immediately dismissed as something that happened to other people who were older and distant. And if accidents did happen to people we knew, we thought that they would just magically bounce back the way they did in cartoons. Everyone could get fixed up like new by doctors, and all in a short time.
The march of time has made many of my contemporaries less healthy. Diabetes, cancer, emphysema, arthritis and various aches, pains and medical conditions have slowed down a number of us. It is to be expected. Like an old car, body and engine parts begin to perform less than their optimum levels and become brittle.
Graying, hairlines receding to total baldness, protruding stomachs, weight gain, wrinkles, poor eyesight, slower movements and memory lapses are getting more common. And we laugh when we notice these in ourselves, feeling collective comfort that we are all going through these together.
We are learning to accept the symptoms of aging, since, quite frankly, we have no choice. And acceptance is not a one-time event. It happens in stages of increasing gravity and we are forced to deal with it more and more as we are faced with less and less physical capabilities. The thing about health is, it is always in flux and demands constant reassessment.
In hindsight, my personal approach to health has been realistic and probably correct. I knew in my 40s that my body had reached its apex, health-wise. I remember Dr. Alran Bengzon telling me that my state of health then was as good as it could get. In other words, it was going to be downhill from then on, and what was important was how I could slow down the descent. That made me hopeful since I was rather healthy and did not have any of the great contributors to health decline like smoking, high blood pressure and stress. I had quit smoking more than 20 years earlier. And in the years that followed, I was exercising, biking, stretching, doing weekend scuba dives and had taken up meditation.
But I always worried about my heart since cardiac arrest, heart attacks and strokes are nasty things that have happened to elders on both sides of my family. Around five years back, I underwent stress tests in Sydney to see how healthy my heart was. After the tests, the doctor gave the thumbs up and said that I was healthy enough to pick up tennis as a sport, and theoretically, I was strong enough to make love after playing three sets! Needless to say, I felt very good about that.
These days, I hardly indulge in heavy exercise. My regimen is simple: eat healthy foods, do daily meditation, rest when I need to, get a good sleep and execute 80 push-ups daily. When in Sydney, I bike occasionally. I also like to walk. But more importantly, I try to be engaged with life by doing things I am passionate about. I like to be around people, especially with my loved ones, do photography, sing, write music, read books and write essays, teach, conduct workshops, and look for opportunities to laugh out loud.
Growing old gracefully is tough to do and does not come easily to many people. In my case, meditation and my own spiritual journey have led me to argue less with time and accept more easily that I will be progressively vulnerable to health problems as I age. I will also look less youthful and appealing, feel less healthy and more mortal as the years pass. And that is okay by me. Frankly, I think I have done a pretty good job coming to terms with aging, so far. I surely still have my vanities, but I have been indulging these to a much lesser degree.
I probably have ample good years left before serious health issues really slow me down. I still want to do many things. On my wish list is for Lydia and me to do the long El Camino Santiago de Compostela trek from France to Spain spread out over a few weeks. I still like to travel, and I want to be around and healthy enough to enjoy more grandchildren.
A quote attributed to the Gautama Buddha reads: “Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.” The healer, Carolyn Myss added to this: “Your Biology is your biography.”
While we are largely responsible for our health, we must also recognize the influence of bad genes that we have inherited. Yes, things can and do go wrong even when we take care of our bodies. But even so, with proper attention and control, we can take care of our bodies and avoid serious issues as far as we can. I am not talking about a fanatical obsession with health. I ascribe to what the American journalist Sydney J. Harris wrote: “Those obsessed with health are not healthy; the first requisite of good health is a certain calculated carelessness about oneself.”
“Health is wealth” we have been told since we were kids. But while we must tend to our health, a body’s got to have a life, too. From a book whose title I can’t recall (probably due to aging), the author cheekily pointed out that while the body is a temple, it can also be a nightclub! What good is being alive if all you do is stay at home, or avoid all the fun for fear of getting sick?
So if you are healthy, go and enjoy that extra large slice of steak, and that night out with friends once in a while. If you are not, at a certain age, it shouldn’t matter too much anymore. So let’s live it up and enjoy what we can while we can. Health, like wealth, will have to be spent inevitably. It can’t be passed on to your loved ones. And you can’t take it with you.