The Gift of Adaptation: It Comes in Handy the Older You Get

While driving to work the other day, I heard a radio interview with environmental historian Jon Christensen, who teaches a course at UCLA called "Climate Change in California: History of the Future." He was talking about the fact that global warming is already with us and, although we may not easily or quickly be able to stop or reverse its effects, we can do a number of things to adapt, making our environments more pleasant in the meanwhile. For example, we can plant more trees around our houses to keep us cooler in summer; we can be aware of our elderly neighbors in sweltering weather; and by doing both, we can form more-tightly knit communities.

Asked if we shouldn't be working harder to stop climate change instead of adapting to it, Christensen noted that adaptation is not the same as acceptance. "Adaptation is about change," he said. "It's what people do... and we're really good at it."

Adaptation? Yes! I thought. I am really good at that! Change is happening not only in the external environment, but also in me as I grow older and, consequently, in my relationship to the world and others. As much as I might like to ignore, minimize or even refuse to accept it, aging must certainly be the greatest physical transformation one can experience since emerging from adolescence into adulthood.

I've been reading a wonderful book, The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life by Piero Ferrucci. Within his eloquent text, Ferrucci explores the various manifestations of kindness as if he were examining a beautiful crystal. One of the facets he considers is flexibility, or the capacity to adapt. "The only way to survive consists in the art of adapting to events that continually take us by surprise," he writes.

One of the most momentous events of our later years is leaving the workforce. Putting retirement on the front burner brings most of us face to face with change on a major scale. What will it really be like, I wonder, once I decide to cut myself loose from the expectations, social environment and structural network around which I have organized my life for so many fruitful years? It is bound to be full of surprises. No matter how well we might have prepared for it, all of us post-50s are entering unfamiliar territory with very few role models for negotiating this landscape in a positive, self-confident and satisfying way.

Considering all of this, I find the notion that human beings are hardwired to be good at adaptation to be both tremendously encouraging and empowering as well. We may no longer be young, but we are resourceful. We have learned to cope and can do it again.

Just like practicing yoga to maintain physical flexibility or learning a new language to increase mental agility, perhaps it's possible to learn how to weather the changes that aging brings by cultivating this great gift of adaptation, an inner stability rooted in years of practice that allows us to balance on one foot, if necessary, and sway like a tree, a core strength that permits us to bend with the wind instead of bracing against it or denying that the wind is even blowing.

I can't possibly know what sorts of adaptations will be required of me going forward. Some may demand leaps of faith, others quiet restraint or simply going with the flow, but no matter what choices I must make to steer a steady course into my later years, it feels good to know that I was born to make them.