اعتماد بنفس و روشن فکری

کتاب: سلامتی در 100 سالگی / فصل 12

اعتماد بنفس و روشن فکری

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12 - Confident and Clear-Thinking  

No matter what our age or condition, there are still untapped possibilities within us, and new beauty waiting to be born.

—Dale E. Turner

Anna Morgan died in 1997, at the age of 102, as one of the most thoroughly studied elders in the history of medical science. When she was 101, her cognitive abilities were studied intensively by scientists conducting the New England Centenarian Study. The researchers asked Anna if she would be willing to donate her brain to science so that they could study it.

“But I’m still using it,” she answered with a smile.

Anna Morgan spent her entire adult life helping people all over the world. In the 1920s, she distributed condoms to local farmwives (an illegal activity at the time). During the Great Depression of the 1930s, she collected food for families of the unemployed. In 1952, she was called before the Ohio State Committee on Un-American Activities, who charged her with contempt when she refused to answer their questions.

“They were right,” Anna said, looking back at the age of 101. “I had a very healthy contempt for the Committee.”

In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned her conviction, citing the First Amendment. It was a case with profound implications for civil rights.

During her nineties, she wrote more than twelve hundred pages of memoirs, and worked on the successful effort to have a postage stamp issued to honor the black singer, actor, and human rights activist Paul Robeson. On her one hundredth birthday, she testified before Congress. At the age of 101, Anna Morgan was still busy, volunteering for groups such as Mobilization for Survival.

But what most interested scientists was her performance on highly sophisticated brain-function tests. When researchers tested her ability at the age of 101 to sustain attention, they found she was easily able to repeat seven-digit strings of numbers, and to connect long number sequences. When they gave her five-digit strings of numbers and asked her to repeat them backward, she had no difficulty doing so. She could also, when asked to do so, spell words backward.

You may have noticed that short-term memory loss is common among the elderly in the modern world, as is a corresponding diminished ability to recall information that has been recently learned. Scientists have a way of testing for this. They give their subjects six simple words and ask them to repeat the words three times. Then they sit in silence for a minute, after which they again ask the subjects to repeat the words. Anna Morgan had no difficulty doing this.

Researchers next ask their subjects to count backward from twenty, and to recite the alphabet rapidly. And then, to see to what extent distraction has diminished their subjects’ recall, and to see if they have a rapid rate of forgetting, researchers ask the subjects to repeat the list of six words once more. Anna Morgan did all this perfectly.

They tested her visual-spatial capacity (how the brain makes sense of what it sees) and found that she was able to draw even complicated figures very well. They tested her abstract reasoning and conceptualization skills, and got answers they would have expected from a mentally intact person forty years younger. Again and again, with each test performed, Anna Morgan refuted the theory that old people, simply by being old, will have significantly reduced cognitive abilities.

But the most impressive part of Anna Morgan’s cognitive performance was still to come. The researchers write:

In order to evaluate subjects’ recall and new learning abilities, we tell them a rather whimsical story…and ask subjects to repeat it. Anna Morgan’s retelling of the story was very complete, as a videotape we made of the session shows.… To this day, our fellow neuropsychologists gasp when they see this tape of Ms. Morgan repeating the details of a story she had heard only minutes before, with practically no hesitation and few errors. Even after having told the story hundreds of times, we ourselves have difficulty in recalling all its details. But Anna Morgan had mastered most of them after hearing it only once. It impressed us that, even at 100 years old, someone could perform better on some of the most demanding cognitive tests than the people administering them did!…Anna Morgan had no signs of dementia, and in our estimation was as engaged in and enthusiastic about life as a high school sophomore. Anna Morgan’s life was filled with contribution, purpose, and meaning, which we now know to be another key factor in avoiding Alzheimer’s. Many studies have found that people who remain connected to others and continue to be mentally stimulated as they age are less likely to fall prey to dementia.

The admonition “use it or lose it” is as true for mental faculties as we age as it is for muscle strength. An idle brain will deteriorate just as surely as an unused leg. A key to cognitive health is having goals and things to look forward to, and knowing that you are doing the work you were put on this earth to do.

The elders most likely to experience dementia are those who spend their days watching television or wandering aimlessly around the mall. On the other hand, those who are contributing to the lives of others, who are engaged in some way in making the world a better or more beautiful place, not only more fully retain their cognitive faculties as they grow older, but often find themselves expanding into new levels of awareness and understanding.

THE AMAZING GRANNY D

Consider, for example, the extraordinary American elder Doris Haddock, known far and wide as “Granny D.” Born in January 1910, Granny D helped stop the planned use of hydrogen bombs in Alaska in 1960. But what brought her to widespread attention was her walk across the United States at the age of ninety, to demonstrate her concern for campaign finance reform. She walked for fourteen months, making speeches, meeting people, and being interviewed. After walking 3,200 miles, she arrived in Washington, D.C., where forty members of the U.S. Congress walked the final miles with her.

Along the way, seventeen U.S. cities declared official “Granny D Days,” and another thirteen U.S. cities presented her with keys to their cities. On her ninetieth birthday, she received the prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Award from the Martin Luther King Coalition.

In 2004, having just completed a more than twenty-two-thousand-mile voter registration effort, ninety-four-year-old Granny D became the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire. She ran on the same message she had long worked for: her belief that U.S. leaders have been corrupted by special-interest money and no longer represent the interests of the people. During her candidacy, she was asked whether she was too old for the office. She replied, “It is never too late, and you are never too old. I am 94, and I am healthy. I have pledged to one term, which will end when I am 101.” True to her convictions, she ran her campaign for the U.S. Senate without a dime of special-interest money from political action committees. Drivers in New Hampshire saw a series of rhyming highway signs, such as

Her campaign cash

Is Fatcat free

She’ll represent

Just you and me

Granny D for U.S. Senate

In her mid-nineties, Granny D was not only still active and involved, she was having an extraordinary impact on American politics. She was more than lucid. She was eloquent, clear, and energetic in her efforts to restore integrity to the American political system. The fact that she did not win did not diminish the importance of her efforts, which continued to be celebrated by prominent leaders from both major U.S. political parties.

Doris Haddock is a true patriot, and our nation has been blessed by her remarkable life.

—former U.S. president Jimmy Carter

I believe she represents all that is good in America. She has taken up this struggle to clean up American politics.…Granny D, you exceed any small, modest contributions those of us who have labored in the vineyards of reform have made to this earth. We are grateful to you.

—Senator John McCain

A NEW IMAGE OF AGING

At a time when nearly half of all Americans over eighty-five suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, I find it heartening to think of people like Granny D and Anna Morgan. They are extraordinary women, obviously, and I don’t mean to imply that you or I or anyone else should hold ourselves to such high standards or expect ourselves to be capable of such heroic achievements. But I am inspired by their joyful and healthy elderhood because it represents an entirely different image of aging than we normally hold in Western culture.

Are they genetically blessed? Probably. But these women have also made choices. Rather than bemoaning what they can no longer do, they have chosen to be filled with energy for what they can do. They aren’t the type to seek protection from life within gated communities or behind locked doors and security systems. In their active, socially engaged lives, they remind me of many of the elders in Okinawa, as well as those in Abkhasia, Vilcabamba, and Hunza, who have remained committed, alert, and healthy into their nineties and beyond.

Scientific studies have found that attitude and social engagement are profoundly important to health. In 1984, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging began one of the largest and most interesting aging studies ever undertaken. Recognizing with dismay that the field of gerontology had become preoccupied with studies of disability and disease, the Research Network began studying healthy elderly people.

A central goal of the MacArthur study was to determine what factors enable some people to retain their mental faculties as they age. The researchers found that one of the most statistically significant predictors of maintaining cognitive functioning with age is the sense of “self-efficacy.” Elders who have a “can do” attitude and who remain engaged in activities as the years go along are far more likely to retain intact mental abilities. I have a friend, Kimberly Carter, who has one of the most positive attitudes about life, and about aging, of anyone I know. In her fifties, she lives every day with a great sense of gratitude and celebration, and looks forward to another fifty years of enjoying her health and her opportunities to contribute to the joy of others. She runs several miles each day, and expects to continue running every day until she reaches her mid-eighties, at which point she expects she’ll switch to hiking. I asked her what might account for her optimistic attitude about aging, and she answered by speaking of the profound influence of her grandmother Amelia, who inspired in her a positive zeal for old age.

Amelia lived to be 103, and was engaged and alert to her last breath. She took a trip to Yugoslavia for her ninetieth birthday, returning home in time to remodel her kitchen and buy a new car, which she then enjoyed for another thirteen years.

Amelia walked a mile each day on her round trip to the post office. One day when she was 100 she was standing on a corner waiting to cross the street when she heard a young man whisper to his companion, “Do you think I should offer to help the old lady across the street?” Amelia looked around to see who he might be talking about! When she finally died, it was from a heart attack that occurred while she was laughing.

Amelia was born in 1882 and became one of the first women to get a Ph.D. in biology. She taught science at Bryn Mawr, and was actively engaged in just about everything: women’s voting rights, public policy, alternative education, natural health care, economics, and international affairs. My friend Kimberly believes that along with her grandmother’s immense common sense about healthful eating and exercise, the lifeblood of her longevity was her level of engagement. Not a day goes by that Kimberly doesn’t give thanks for the gift of having known and been loved by her grandmother.

FREE AT LAST

Those of us who have known elders whose lives have been healthy and bright with promise and hope are fortunate indeed, for we have seen the special gifts that can come with age. I have been blessed to know many men and women who, when they reach the age of fifty or sixty, begin to free themselves from cultural constraints and to express themselves in ways they had not dared to do before. They become less defined by what others think of them and more by what they think of themselves. Increasingly freed from the burden of having always to fulfill other people’s expectations, their lives start to reflect a new kind of willingness to be exactly who they are. They break free from histories of physical stress, neglect, and abuse. They become more alive.

Instead of thinking of it as a tragedy when their bodies begin to creak and slow down, they accept the limitations that arise and see the transitions they are going through as opportunities to ground themselves in a deeper sense of self and a greater wisdom. Their love for others and for the world becomes more accepting. They increasingly let go of minutiae and the nonessentials of life. Their perspective shifts, details soften, and the larger panorama comes into focus. They are able to enjoy life more than they did when they were young because they have a deeper understanding of it.

Maybe you, too, have known someone like this. These are people who do not conform to a youth-obsessed culture’s expectations of what their latter years will be like. Instead, their lives come to enact an entirely different vision of aging. No longer so driven by the desires that shaped the first part of their lives, their lives become more about meaning than about ambition, more about intimacy than about achieving. They experience the second half of their life as a time of deepening creativity and ripening of the soul.

In her 2005 book, Plan B, author Anne Lamott gives beautiful voice to this revelation of what aging can be:

I was at a wedding the other day with a lot of women in their twenties and thirties. Many wore sexy dresses, their youthful skin aglow. And even though I was twenty to thirty years older than they, a little worse for wear, a little tired, and overwhelmed by the loud music, I was smiling.… Age has given me what I was looking for my entire life—it has given me me. It has provided time and experience and failures and triumphs and time-tested friends who have helped me step into the shape that was waiting for me. I fit into me now. I have an organic life, finally, not necessarily the one people imagined for me, or tried to get me to have. I have the life I longed for. I have become the woman I hardly dared imagine I could be.… I still have terrible moments when I despair about my body—time and gravity have not made various parts of it higher and firmer. But those are just moments now—I used to have years when I believed I was more beautiful if I jiggled less, if all parts of my body stopped moving when I did. But I know two things now that I didn’t at thirty: That when we get to heaven, we will discover that the appearance of our butts and skin was 127th on the list of what mattered on this earth. And that I am not going to live forever. Knowing these things has set me free.

I am thrilled—ish—for every gray hair and sore muscle, because of all the friends who didn’t make it, who died too young of AIDS and breast cancer.…I have survived so much loss, as all of us have by our forties—my parents, dear friends, my pets. Rubble is the ground on which our deepest friendships are built. If you haven’t already, you will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with a banged-up heart.… Look, my feet hurt some mornings, and my body is less forgiving when I exercise more than I am used to. But I love my life more, and me more. I’m so much juicier. And as that old saying goes, it’s not that I think less of myself, but that I think of myself less…And that feels like heaven to me.

BEING JUICIER

One of the things I love about the people I’ve known who have exemplified the healthiest kind of aging, be it in Okinawa, Abkhasia, or America, is that they have, like Anne Lamott, found strength and joy in their self-acceptance. I don’t mean by this that they are complacent or smug. I mean that they know and respect who they are, and they have found a way of engaging with the world that brings them joy.

Some of us find our passion in activism, like Anna Morgan and Granny D. Maybe you, too, will in your own way find yourself being some kind of activist, taking a stand and speaking out on behalf of some cause or purpose. But many people find their passion and alive-ness draws them down a different, less conspicuous path. Maybe you will find in your later years that you are an artist, or a teacher, or a volunteer, or a gardener, or a grandparent who becomes deeply involved with your grandchild or grandchildren. Maybe you will step into your wisdom years to discover that you have been deepened by all you have experienced. Maybe you will find new richness and growth in your self-appreciation and inner life. Maybe you will find that healthy aging can be about far more than the preservation of your youthful faculties, that it can be about the blossoming of your finest and wisest self.

I don’t think it’s terribly important what form your engagement with life takes, but I do think it matters that you keep finding ways to share your wisdom and to experience your courage, to live with vigor, zest, and zeal, whatever your age. For then I believe you will continue to find, in every season of your life, sources of hope and reasons for thanksgiving.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE

Even taking one step is significant. Each step you take makes it easier to take the next. And even small changes in your lifestyle habits continued over the course of months, years, and decades can make a profound difference.

Play in the snow. Run in the rain. Dance in the moonlight. Walk barefoot in the grass. Learn to skate, or take up ballroom dancing or tennis. Try physical activities that you’ve always wanted to do but never have done.

Make an exercise date with a friend. Go jogging or hiking, or work out at the gym together.

Instead of taking a pill for stress, take a hike in the mountains. Or do yoga. Or ride a bicycle outdoors, or a stationary bike indoors near an open window.

If possible, jog or hike on trails rather than pavement. To enhance sleep, exercise regularly, in bright outdoor light if possible. Experiment with exercising at different times of the day in order to find what works best for you. Try to get at least thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise. For optimal results, exercise for an hour or longer each day.

Create an exercise program that you enjoy and that fits well into your life. Regardless of the weather, your mood, job pressures, or anything else, get some exercise every day. Set attainable goals, follow through, and enjoy the results. Keep a food, mood, and exercise diary. Work up a sweat at least once a day.

When you exercise regularly, give thanks for the increasing energy, confidence, and well-being you experience.

Ask yourself what makes you come alive, what you love to do. Find ways to express your passion in the way you live your life.

Draw a picture, or make a collage of photos cut from magazines, that represents how you experience your body, including all the stresses, pains, and wounds. Then draw a picture or make a collage that represents how you would like to experience your body. Make it totally glorious. Then draw a picture or make a collage that represents you taking the steps that lead from the first to the second. Put the three in a place where you will see them daily, perhaps on a bedroom or bathroom wall, where they will remind you of your intention and provide support for your journey to joy and fulfillment.

Hold a picture in your mind of your body as healthy and whole. Write a contract with your body in which you list the specific steps you will take to improve your health. Decide how much time you want to spend directly nurturing your body through exercise. Bear in mind that the time you spend will make a world of difference in every aspect of your life. Know that it is your birthright to feel exuberantly and totally alive.

To get in deeper touch with your body, explore some of the body-centered therapies, such as Rolfing, Hellerwork, Aston-Patterning, Alexander, Feldenkrais, Trager, Hakomi, the Rosen Method, Dreambodywork, Pilates, T’ai Chi, yoga, and others.

Never walk away from looking at yourself in the mirror until you feel truly appreciative of your beauty. Stay there for as long as it takes. The point is not to admire some perfect curve or external image, but to appreciate yourself just the way you are.

Spend time with the young. Read to children, cuddle with them, play with them. Be nourished by their wonder.

Spend time with the old. Befriend and learn from elders. Invite older persons to tell you stories from their lives. Find older mentors who will lead you toward wisdom.

Speak with your family or friends about the people and events that have given you a sense of the meaning and significance in your life.

Invite a friend to gaze at the stars with you. Or watch a sunset, or a sunrise.

Invite friends and loved ones to join you in celebrating your major life milestones. Share stories from your journey.

Celebrate your birthday every year by doing something you’ve never done before.

Give time or money (or both) to a cause you believe in. Support organizations and people working for a better world. Stand for the highest possibilities of humanity.

Once in a while, go on a media fast. For a period of time, unplug the TV, turn off the radio, don’t read the newspaper or magazines, and turn off your computer.

Listen less to the voices of the media and more to the still, small voice deep within your own heart.

In a world beset by violence, remember the importance of your peace. In a land plagued by hurry, take time to savor each moment. In a culture becoming ever more dehumanized, let people know you love them.

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