The last time I saw her I was nursing my half-finished coffee and talking with a friend about his new job and my plans for the next year.
The coffee shop we were in has retractable glass windows. On a nice day, the staff can slide them across and bathe the tables in the sunlight that creeps in from the high street. This day, the windows were open.
My friend saw her shuffle past and laughed. I looked up.
She was old. Long dress with a flowery print. Neutral coloured cardigan wrapped around her shoulders. Glasses. A small handbag clutched tightly to her side. A light silk scarf draped loosely around her neck. She looked like a regular old lady.
With one difference.
When someone is standing upright, you can draw a straight line from their buttocks to their upper back to the back of their head. Or if they have poor posture, you can get a straight line from the buttocks to the upper back, but not to the head. The head tilts forward from sit-on-my-arse-all-day syndrome.
This lady had good posture. Her back was straight. Her shoulders weren’t rolled forward. Except where her head should of been there was just empty space.
Her head, rather than sitting atop her shoulders, was almost on top of her chest.
Push your chin out in front of you as far as you can. Really stretch it out. Now try to lower your chin to your chest. That’s where her head was.
Everyone understands and recognises the signs of physical ageing. Our muscles tighten and weaken. We become less mobile and it becomes more difficult to move. Getting down to the ground and back up becomes a challenge. Our hair greys and our skin wrinkles. Our bones become fragile. And in extreme cases, our head ends up in a different position.
Physical ageing is a consequence of existence. We can slow it’s march to some degree, but inevitably, time will have it’s way with the structure of our body.
But how do we age mentally? What makes us go from young and supple to old and rigid?
I think rather than painting a picture of an old mind, it is easier to answer that question if we imagine someone with a young mind. What are some qualities they possess?
They have a willingness to be surprised. By recognising that what they know isn’t right, just not yet proved wrong, they open the door to surprise and serendipity. Their knowledge is not solidified because it always at risk of transforming and evolving into something better.
They have a boundless curiosity. The level of our curiosity is determined by the quality (and sometimes the quantity) of the questions we ask ourselves and others. How does that work? Why are they doing that? Is there a better way? Who can I help? Who or what can help me? Being able to ask is more important than being able to answer.
They understand the first two rules of skepticism: 1) Don’t be afraid to change your mind. 2) Never be surprised when you are wrong.
They listen. To themselves and their intuition and to the world around them. They listen with what Malcolm X calls “big ears” and endeavour to see with clear vision.
They can sort the signal from the noise. Most of our time is spent shutting out the barrage of attention-seeking information that is directed at us. Seth Godin talks about this in Permission Marketing, which I started just this morning. As the amount of information we are exposed to increases, so must the quality of the filters and mechanisms we use to sort and deflect it.
This is the where the structure of our information diet and the importance of de-narrating comes in. Our mind stays young when we can block out the noise that would normally paralyse and overwhelm it.
They understand the age of the world. I don’t mean they kiss the ground and profess the beauty of nature. I mean that they recognise that the knowledge and wisdom they have accumulated is nothing in comparison to the collective wisdom and experience of those who have come before and are living in parallel.
Their understanding is but a seed in the great forest of total human experience.
They live with joy. Watch a child as they play. All their anxieties, all their worries fade when they are chasing the ball, playing the game and laughing with their friends. An old mind is crushed by constraints, by restrictions—either self-imposed or externally placed—of it’s freedom, by frustration at it’s failure or inability to fulfil it’s potential.
A young mind is burdened by nothing. It is defined by it’s own freedom. It is light, energetic, quick to respond and fast to adapt. A young mind ultimately changes. Every single day.
Physical ageing is amplified by a lack of movement, by the consumption of junk, by exposure to repetitive, boring stimuli. So too the mind. When we do not challenge it, when we feed it with noise, when we cease to exercise it’s full range and repertoire of capabilities, it ages.
In the essay On Experience, Montaigne discusses the qualities of a powerful mind, but he could have been describing what a young mind must continue to do to stay young:
“No powerful mind stops within itself; it is always stretching out and exceeding it’s capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve; it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows; it’s inquiries are shapeless and without limits; it’s nourishment consists in amazement, the hunt and uncertainty.”
We can remain, truly, forever young.