Few national values are as readily observable as the one that incessantly declares that we Americans seek “Improvement”. Indeed, we insist upon it. For us, improvement as described in the dictionary is the driver of much of what we do with our lives: “make or become better, make more acceptable, bring nearer to a standard, enhance”.
This focus on improvement starts in infancy and shapes all dimensions of human existence. Here is a scattering of early life cycle examples: toddler walking, preschooler knowing colors, early kindergarten handling separation from parents, early grade school reading, middle school athletic engagement and/or arts and/or technologies, high school social skills…you get the idea. Parents gather at the soccer field or the basketball court not just to watch their offspring perform athletically but also to share observations on “improvements” or lament their absence in these offspring. Then they go home to work on “improvements” to their homes.
The national narrative in search of “improvements” is even more pervasive and obvious, perhaps insidious. Stock market status, traffic patterns, shareholder reports, adverse drug reactions, employment numbers, TV viewer statistics, weather predictions, agricultural output, home sales, athletic team performances, digital clicks, profit margins...this list is virtually endless. We even assess one another as colleagues in terms of “needing improvement” in some category, creating annual evaluations to turn this statement into a directive.
We grow up thinking not only that it is within our capacity to constantly improve in everything, but also often intercept a subtle message that we should be trying to do so. “Anyone can learn to cook!” “This is the perfect fitness program for you!” “Just take your time; you will get used to your new laptop.” We report on and award the folks who “improve”, sort of like the narrative right before the Olympic event followed by the medal ceremony. We may secretly create personal goals that have an overriding goal: improvements.
I like to think I have written enough now to make it possible for a person to start noticing that we are somewhat obsessed with the importance of improvement and we define our personal worth and value in terms of “improvements” made. Life becomes a series of self-improvement initiatives, some very satisfying, some a bit odd, some irksome, some quite despicable, but all meeting the same overriding criterion: improve.
This appears to work for most of the human life cycle, and then hits a countervailing reality that disrupts the pattern. The process of normal aging is not a trajectory of “improvements” in most life dimensions. On the contrary, it is often experienced as losing ground, reversal, even defeat. Thus, a central national value suddenly becomes a yardstick to measure not ones worth and value but the obvious and easily documented failure to meet the expectations of that value. Is it any wonder that we have so much public aversion to aging and widespread ageism. While we may, as elders, “improve” in wisdom, most other parameters are moving in an opposite direction.
Nonetheless, the “improvement” value does not evaporate on your 65th birthday or your 80th birthday. We all still have the neural tracks of “improvement” laid down, installed and unyielding. So, we try all manner of things to keep “improving”. In a nation in denial about death much of the time, the reality of our final developmental stage concluding in the certitude of death is studiously ignored. Now, from a purely logical and practical perspective, a person is not likely to just keep improving and then in a twinkle of an eye, simply up and die.
But we sort of act like we think that’s how it will play out. Sounds a bit crazy, but if you read all the literature being generated on extending your life, warding off the physical and mental declines in aging, increasing your fitness later in life, and defiantly ensuring marked longevity, this is apparently how we imagine the script being dramatized. Most of these narratives however skip the part about “….and then you die”. Just because it is not in the script does not mean it will not happen. It will. You will die. I will die.
A lot of time in a human’s later years is spent needing and therefore seeking health care. This is because our health status shifts through the aging process. Health care, however, is usually focused on “improvement” (of course). For the elderly, more often, it realistically needs to focus on limiting decline or adapting to losses already in place. I have Aging Macular Degeneration (AMD). This requires that I get eye injections (seriously, that is the treatment: what a shock!). Now these eye injections do not improve anything about my eyes or their functions. They simply prevent me from going blind from untreated AMD. It is a good example of the shift from “improvement” to maintenance or contained decline or deceleration of inevitable physical losses.
A part of me really wants improvement: my neural tracks are active and insistent. In hankering after improvement, I may fail to notice that I have the good fortune to have a treatment modality that until recently did not exist. So, I get to have eyesight! As is obvious, another way of responding might be gratitude and hope. But focusing on the value I place on improvement can “blind” me to the good fortune of a steady state or a slowed down decline. At my last injection, my eye doctor told me I was “perfect”, a fairly unfamiliar descriptor in my experience. When I questioned his choice of terms, he clarified: “You’re stable, and that is perfect!” I did not improve: I was in a steady state of managing a disease well.
I would like to propose that we revamp the “improvement” value and switch it to a “creative problem-solving” value for the elderly. We could even have fun with some of this. A friend and I were comparing notes on the decline in our grasp strength. It seems we both took some pride in this capacity, and its gradual disappearance was unsettling. We then switched to a bemused and somewhat entertaining discussion of cool jar opening equipment we had found (after systematic searching and testing) to accommodate our loss. Our shared enthusiasm about our triumphant celebration was a source of laughter.
Most examples eventually can be viewed as amusing. As we age, we need brighter lights to read. Now I am not going to try to make that reality go away or insist on some flighty “improvement” fantasy. I have this very high-powered flashlight on my kitchen counter. Whenever reading challenges emerge, I grab my high-powered flashlight, turn it on and focus on the challenge. It’s a great way to ensure the accurate use of a recipe, ease in finding a small object I dropped that is now hiding under the edge of the cupboard or successfully reading the directions on a package deliberately written in small print for no clear reason.
No matter how many “delayed aging” and “longevity enhancement” initiatives we humans embrace, in the end we will all indeed experience decline and death. It increasingly seems to me that deliberately dropping the “improvement” fixation and moving toward the “creative problem-solving” emphasis for life as an aging citizen would be a great “improvement”, transcending our current habits and assumptions and finding enjoyment in making up solutions and sharing them. It could be a national movement: Creative Adaptations to Aging! And it could be fun and funny.
“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life and a hell of a lot more interesting life.”
- Elizabeth Gilbert -
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