Vulnerability. The final frontier.
Shortly after retirement, a sidewalk malfunction left me face down on the pavement.
Though little time elapsed between the slip and the splat, time seemed to stand still. And my life – past and future – flashed in front of my eyes.
The past looked familiar. After all, it’s the past. But it was minus the colorful back story. The explanations and excuses. The plaintiff admissions that I’d done the best I could under the circumstances.
As strictly a life in review, I found it a tad disappointing.
The future had shown up as a stormy set of coming attractions. A Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds experience that began the instant my body propelled toward the ground.
I had conjured up a preview of life inside an assisted living facility. A tornado of wheelchairs, stretchers, nurses hats, and syringes catapulting through the air in representation of the coming post-tumble apocalypse.
Embarrassed by Vulnerability. Captured by Worry.
I wasn’t physically hurt.
The sidewalk mishap pierced only my pride. But it offered invitation to an entirely unwanted existential concern. I’ll call it elder-worry.
At 65, was I already on the slippery side of the aging slope? Was I… vulnerable?
A few weeks ago, a friend within spitting distance of my age tumbled backward while gardening. When reporting the incident to me, she said, “As I fell toward the ground, I saw the inevitable end coming at me: the broken bones that lead to a broken life.”
It was not an unfamiliar story. The broken hip that leads to – well – you know what it leads to. We all know that the dreaded fall can provoke an early ending.
But what does mental vulnerability predict? And does it too attach itself whole-cloth to the territory of aging?
Insightful poet-philosopher David Whyte writes, “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without. Vulnerability is not a choice; vulnerability is the underlying, ever-present and abiding under-current of our natural state.”
David Whyte may be accurate. And we should be aware of our vulnerabilities. But we should not pander to them. Or allow vulnerability to lead us around by the proverbial nose.
We are in control. There are precautions. We do not simply splatter one after the other, like lemmings, headfirst onto sidewalks.
A physical fall is not inevitable. And a mental failing is not, either.
I Age, Therefore I Am Vulnerable
Age had never been more than a minor distraction. Fifty and sixty breezed by without a ruffle.
Even as I jettisoned past 65 – the age considered to be harbinger of significant life change – vulnerability seemed to linger only at the distant edges of my life.
But that morning’s pavement mishap? It left me wondering if vulnerability was now tapping at my front door.
Am I a Worrier or a Warrior?
The worrier wrestles in advance with the consequences of another fall. The warrior thinks it won’t happen again. It’s about being more attentive. More aware of my surroundings.
Yet statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are unsettling. Every 11 seconds, an adult 65 or older is treated in an emergency room for a fall. Every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
It would be negligent to avoid steps to lower the risk of another topple. (Here’s a place to read about preventative measures).
Antidote to Vulnerability: Mindfulness
Vulnerability can occupy a damaging psychological place in our lives.
It can force us to second-guess how we walk down a street, step out of a shower, or navigate a freeway. It can lead to under compensating or overcompensating safety issues like speed, reaction time, or rational decision-making.
On the other hand, vulnerability can be a savvy reminder to open ourselves up to that generous benefactor – mindfulness.
Traveling through your days with mindfulness can offer optimum support for the senses and an awareness backdrop against which to make solid choices.
Mindfulness is simply a way to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judgment. Without believing there’s a right or a wrong for any given moment. Just a path forward that takes into consideration both instinct and experience.
For instance, if I had not been walking my dog and listening to a podcast at the same time, would I have noticed the rise in the pavement before me?
Like most yin-yang relationships, vulnerability and mindfulness can peacefully coexist on the same plane. And while being mindfulness might not eradicate vulnerability, it can lessen the impact of what David Whyte calls our “natural state.”
Note to self.
(Photography provided by Anton Reponnen for Unsplash)