The least troublesome definition of “decline” I could locate reads as follows: “become smaller, fewer, or less; decrease (usually of something regarded as good)”. Additional meanings rapidly become disturbingly troublesome from this modest point of departure, especially in a visit to a thesaurus. Here I was confronted with options such as “deteriorate, degenerate, atrophy, stagnate, fail, sink, go downhill”. Quite the perky little list for someone who just turned 80! As I continued my adventure in meaning, I found “adapt” was a more affirming word, including the concept of becoming adjusted to new conditions and of making something suitable for a new use or purpose.
As my blog title indicates, I have set out to discuss these two concepts as a single one, two seemingly dissimilar concepts interacting to create a third interesting idea. The concept that stands in contrast to this merged idea is “decline’s” antonym, with “flourish” and “increase” suggested, though not quite adequate for my purposes. I have opted for the word “emergence: “the process of coming into being”.
The human life cycle is a process of emergence and decline. As a death-denying culture, we tend to focus on the emergence and hope to ignore or deny the decline. The reality is that you can take almost any dimension of human existence and chronicle its emergence, a point of ascendancy to peak performance, and an inevitable decline. As is clearly the case, the final outcome is death or completion of the cycle.There is actually a creative utility in trying to map out a personal list of these dimensions and their cycles; to do so creates a consciousness not only of our unique human journey, but also highlights the impermanent nature each of us has as a distinct entity. We're actually only here for a bit of time, a short term array of capacities.
Walking is a good example, beginning with the discovery that being upright and mobile works better than crawling, moving through a range of uses for walking, and eventually to the slowing of walking, the unsteadiness of walking, and finally, the total end of walking. Other options to explore quickly enter our awareness: singing a song, writing a letter, cleaning the oven, traveling to a foreign country, cuddling a child…
In all of these there is a beginning point, a transition from nothing to something through emergence, then repetition and refinement, and over time, the steady decline of the capacity under scrutiny, whatever it might be. Understanding this life cycle reality becomes more urgent as we systematically set out to lengthen that life cycle: the embrace of longevity. We find ourselves with the same reality of decline, though it is potentially slowed down in some cases for some people. For most, it is unchanged, and we have added 10 to 30 years of “living” while managing the decline. Our focus is often on making the decline “go away”, though the human condition of impermanence ensures that we can at best only delay the inevitable.
As a student of this state of affairs, it has seemed to me that one of the striking issues we confront is not how to make decline “go away” but to figure out what to do about it. Decline happens! Now what do I do about that? What are my options? What are my assets and liabilities in grappling with decline? What does all this ask of me? I am repeatedly sobered by the number of people who experience a decline in some capacity and assume that this means that capacity has been shut down in perpetuity. To them it seems decline means the total collapse of life to the steady diminishment of human existence until it disappears. Decline is the concept that explains our culture’s assumption about aging: “slowly fade and then disappear…
Which is how I concluded we needed to create a construct of “Decline/Adapt” as a single process. As soon as a decline reveals itself (which is how it often feels – a revelation!), the next automatic response would be adaptation. If I suddenly discover that I have less capacity, how might I adapt to this lessening and still engage in my life experiences while accommodating what I experience as a “loss”? More pragmatically, can I rewrite the experience of “loss” and immediately notice “new conditions, new purpose, new use”? Can my spontaneous lament at the “loss” of some capacity be reframed and reengineered as an invitation to a new commitment and intentionality?
While I was trying to clarify the answer to these questions for myself, I found that examples abound. The first 50 years of my life I spent in the Midwest where the cycle of the seasons was an intrinsic part of the communal understanding of life; most of my extended family members were farmers, the ultimate occupation for seasonal cycles. Yet I had limited consciousness of the cycles. I didn’t know I didn’t know this.
I started walking my forest path to address the need to walk at least 5 days of every week, one of my adaptations to a decline in spontaneous unstructured exercise. On my path, I could walk, just not very fast. The slow down, and the need to have a safe, even, fall-avoiding walking trail repeatedly took me through the same forest terrain as the annual seasonal cycles unfolded. In the 70th decade of my life, I finally experienced the cycle of the seasons, and paid attention.
This example unveils another factor worth pondering. “Decline/Adapt” decisions require focus, and the decision to focus inevitably creates the conditions for new expressions of intentionality. From this emerges (I use the word deliberately) new experiences, new purpose, new conditions to be experienced, understood and integrated. Now obviously much of human existence is exactly that, the emergence of new experiences, new purpose and new conditions, however decline is not usually the identified catalyst.
Perhaps what is worth pondering is the potential for “decline” to catalyze a whole range of life experiences and intentions and capacities that would not “happen” without the decline. It has been my experience, in grappling with aging and its many declines, that most people are far more interested in monitoring me for “decline” than in noticing and celebrating my creative “adaptations”. Indeed, the latter are often viewed as odd, atypical or an indication that I am struggling with maladaptation to aging. It’s a good thing I have a sense of humor.
I came to my idea of “Decline/Adapt” circuitously, trying first the most popular responses to the escalating decline that accompanies the later stages of aging. The most popular response from my observations is “denial”: “While others may be deteriorating, I am not! Just watch me prove it!!” Inevitably, this leads to some unfortunate reckoning experience, and after the trip to the Emergency Room or the profuse apology to the hostess at the party, one can then switch to the second most popular: “Yes, it is true I am in decline, and due to this collection of tragic losses of capacity, I can now do little or nothing. I am going to sit here and wait for the Grim Reaper to show up.” I did not like my options in these established responses: Denial or Total Capitulation.
Alternatives seemed essential, hence the “Decline/Adapt” construct where at all times we humans have the opportunity to consciously engage in our final developmental set of challenges. We are continuously tapping in to unknown, unimagined and unrealized creative impulses to adapt to what is today, still possible. Watching my own engagement in this process, I am continuously startled at what “adapt” makes possible when confronting “decline”. I am also regularly amused. It is often inelegant, but it “works”, an offshoot of “Wisdom Work”.
“I am the shore and the ocean, awaiting myself on both sides.”
- Dajan Stojanovic -
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