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September 10th, 2020
It certainly seems that people become set in their ways as they get older. That old aphorism comes to mind: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And then of course there is the stray anecdote here and there of some old dog actually picking up a new trick - we hear about a 60 some-odd year old picking up a guitar and discovering the long forgotten unpleasantness of being a newb before finally getting the hang of it. It’s certainly more than possible, it’s just less probable with time. But when this sort of anecdote happens upon us - for a moment, reassurance rushes us, there’s nothing to fear and all is right with the world, despite the obvious delusion.
It’s a bit reminiscent of the game Tetris. We all have a limited amount of time to get our mind shaped and pointed in a direction before it gets somewhat frozen in place. For many, the stagnation of flexibility results in a perspective that easily and quickly becomes at odds with others, and this is of course typified by the stereotypical grumpy old man. It’s interesting to wonder if those hallowed ‘good old days’ are reminiscent - not of some actual edenic time, but merely of a time when a person’s present perspective felt more in tune and in step with reality.
Running with this idea for a moment, we might try to flip it inside out and say that it’s possible to bring back the good old days by simply changing with the times. But of course, the ability to change is the thing that escapes us as we get older. Or is it? Can we make a habit of flexibility?
There are some people in their 90’s who are astonishingly good dancers and gymnasts. There’s a few videos of such nonagenarians floating around the internet and the first thought is always: there’s no way these people are in their 90’s.
And it’s not like these agile oldies can only do one dance or one acrobatic routine, in the same way a grumpy old man would spout the same broken record rhetoric. Such nonagenarians have accomplished the incredible feat of maintaining their flexibility.
The physical correlate of flexibility and how to maintain it is pretty straightforward. Daily practice and training of the body with stretching and exercise, and chances are higher that such physical flexibility will endure.
But what about something like perspective? How does an individual’s perspective stay flexible, and what would the daily training for such a thing look like? We might default to something like reading every day. This would most certainly be a help, but it’s a bit like the old boxing trainer who has a good eye and can give good direction but can no longer get into the ring.
We might tack on writing to this daily training and surely we are getting closer. But like the grumpy old man who won’t shut his trap about the same issue and the same take on that issue, even writing can become a self-reinforcing habit that merely works to entrench an individual’s perspective. This is certainly evident in the late works of a lot of non-fiction writers whose seminal work is long behind them.
There is one piece of linguistic legerdemain that weaves its way through all three of these, through talking, reading, and writing. And this unique facet of language doesn’t just stretch the mind in the way our nonagenarian moves their arms and legs through daily stretches. This tool also provokes creativity, like a dancer or musician who is skilled enough to go off script while staying on beat. This twist of language is the question.
We have to wonder what happens to a human mind that has become very good at generating and exploring interesting, incisive and well-honed questions?
We need only ask, if someone well-skilled in the art of the question more or less likely to maintain a flexibility of thought and mind?
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