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THRESHOLD

If you listen you can hear it

It's the laughter in the street

It's the motion in the music

And the fire beneath your feet

All the signs are right this time

You don't have to try so very hard

If you live in this world

You're feelin' the change of the guard

 - Change of The Guard, by Steely Dan


Our lives are defined by limitations. We can only drive as fast as the speed limit. We can only spend as much as is in our accounts. We can only lift as much as we have strength to carry. We can only hear so well, see so far, feel so accurately, and think so quickly. We’re finite creatures with finite capacities, in place because of the limits of our biology, the imposition of laws and regulations to keep us safe, or because of the intersection of those and other factors. Life is the art of making things happen between those limits, and life is largely uneventful.


People can live a long time before discovering one of their limits. One of the earliest limits we find is how fast we can run - there’s a lot of clout to being the quickest kid on the playground. Another limit we discover is the limit of our intellectual abilities - how easily we read, how quickly we do arithmetic, and how smoothly we solve problems. There’s less clout associated with being the smartest kid in the room, at least there was when I was a kid. We become acquainted with our limits as we grow older, developing a boundary between things we can and can’t do that is more or less faint depending on the clarity of the difference between our actual and assumed abilities. 



The Sky is Falling


The problem is that that boundary line is largely assumed, and becomes more hazy the longer we go without challenging our assumptions. The more time we spend without testing those limits, the more nebulous the relationship between what we can and can’t do. Sometimes the flaws in our assumptions become painfully apparent when we try to do something we thought was easy. Anyone who’s put a musical instrument, a paintbrush, or draft project away for days, months, years, before picking it back up and feeling very much a stranger to what they were doing is an example of this, being alienated from something with which they were once familiar.


Sometimes alienation isn’t what we feel. Sometimes what we feel is pain, especially when the limits of our physical capacity - strength, flexibility, speed, or agility - preclude us from doing the thing we want to. I’ve seen patients who snapped tendons stepping down off sidewalks, who tore muscles running to get the bus, who strained a rotator cuff trying to scratch a spot on their back, or who yawned so wide that they dislocated their own jaw. I mean, how horrifying. Things like that happen all the time, and when they do, they’re scary because they’re painful, they’re frightening because they’re unexpected, and they’re terrifying because now we need to figure out where our limits are very quickly, and we’ve already been wrong once. Sometimes we find our limits, and sometimes our limits find us. 


People who use their bodies in their day to day lives - people who have active jobs, people who do recreational physical exercise, people who sweat a little bit, have an advantage here because in engaging their bodies, they become familiar with their limits and capacities. That nebulous boundary between what may or may not be possible crystallises into a coherent language of physical feedback that a person uses to translate the sensations that they experience - they learn what pain comes from strain, from irritation, from injury, and from fatigue. A person learns when they can push and when they can back off. A person learns how to test their limits. The apex of this is in the finely tuned periodisation and construction of athletic training programs. The more elite a sportsperson becomes, the more precisely they need to test, push, and surpass their limits; treading a fine line between overloading and understimulating themselves, and riding that knife edge as perfectly as they can through competition and beyond. 


We don’t all need to be athletes, but we do need to interrogate the assumptions we have about ourselves. I’ve written before about how necessary that is - how important it is to have an understanding of what we can and can’t do safely, and why it’s important to challenge those assumptions. I acknowledge that it can be scary - nobody wants to acknowledge the limitations of their capability, especially when those capabilities run to who they are. That, however, is why appreciating those limits is important. Our capacities and limits change because we change. 


Running from the Sandman


The average age of death of a man in Australia, born in the 1900s, was 65. That’s controlling for those episodes of unpleasantness in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that characterised the twentieth century. The expected average age of death of a man in Australia, born in the year 2020, is more than 90. Over that span of time, every single capacity, from physical strength, cardiovascular endurance, reflexes, balance, cognition, memory, and eyesight, will degrade. It’s a confronting thing, possibly contributing to why men over the age of 85 experience the highest rate of suicidality and that the rate of suicidality for older adults more broadly is three times the national average. There are many other factors that give rise to those outcomes, but it underpins a point. It can be extremely, existentially uncomfortable to experience the inevitable and inexorable changing of one’s body, especially when we’re in it. Eventually those nebulous boundaries between what we can and can’t do start becoming more defined, and then they start closing in. Sometimes they close in faster than we can compensate for their tightening, and before we know it, we’re trapped - increasingly hemmed in by the diminishing capacities of the body in which we were living our whole lives.


Our limits change because we change, and they’ll always get the better of us in the end. 


The challenge of contemporary products, professionals and practice is to keep those limits as far away as possible for as long as possible. The work of health is to work against that inevitability, to keep people vital, moving, and engaged while their bodies and time work against them. This is so much of an issue that the discourse of ageing has evolved so many times in the past thirty years, moving from anti-ageing to supportive ageing, positive ageing, active ageing, successful ageing. This change in dialogue mirrors the manner in which we engage with narratives of health, wellness, injury, wellbeing, and so much more. The argument could be made that the language we use to handle these issues has changed because our societies have acquired a more nuanced understanding of the subtleties brought with these problems. More realistically, the changing language reflects a changing focus - a refinement of the marketing of wellness and wellbeing. Health is a luxury in the Western World. While subsidised for those who qualify, modern healthcare is a luxury which is pay-to-play. Luxuries are marketed. Marketing engages with issues and sets the tone. Marketing is blessed to have health and wellbeing as drivers because nobody wants to be unwell, and yet we are assailed by the reminders of our unwellness in our daily lives. We experience the tightening of the limits of our bodies and live our changing capacities, becoming ever more aware of the gulf between what we can do, what we could once do, and the inevitability that there may yet be things we can’t do in the future. I’ve written before about how when advertising is combined with health, the result is health-flavoured advertising. There have been examples of how the intersection between health, dialogue and data have produced deleterious outcomes - read the blog post “Feedback Changes” to learn more about that. 


Nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that it’s an inevitability that there is a limit hanging over all of us, a Damoclean blade cleaving from side to side with the metronomic inevitability of the heavy plummet’s pace. There is nothing more real than time. There is no limit more real than that, and you can’t market it without talking about it directly. In this is the kernel of truth - that the boundaries of our powers are uncomfortable things to confront, because they are finite, because they are real, and because acknowledging them reifies our own limitations, our own mortality, and our own finitude. Limits are a wall we cannot push through or past beyond a certain point. Instead, time, alienation, and vulnerability mount on and on. It doesn’t need to happen over the span of a lifetime. No matter what, our limits find us in the end. 


Poetry


Art is something made within boundaries that surpasses those boundaries and is more perfect because of that situation. Material, form, convention and theme are imposed limitations on the scope of the performative and creative space, and so what happens needs to happen in those lines. The tighter the lines, the less you can do, but that doesn’t make the masterpiece any less remarkable. Our bodies, lives, and contexts change over time. The challenge is to make a masterpiece in that increasingly tiny possibility space. The challenge is to live in that threshold and to triumph all the same, and it is a triumph because it gets harder and harder to do over time. Sometimes the triumph is doing what’s normal, especially for those whose limits are more tightly entrained than others because of reasons over which they may have had no control - biology, anatomy, gender identity and social context. Sometimes the threshold is real, sometimes it is constructed, and sometimes it arises out of the grey-area intersection between the two. 


The challenges are multiple - to maintain a dialogue of understanding with our own body in which we also maintain a positive relationship to ourselves, but understanding that we are finite and by giving ourselves the grace to excuse and forgive our imperfections. To understand that because of the changes that happen with time, we have to acknowledge, address, and accept the shifting bounds of what is possible. Most of all, our human finitude demands humility. Nothing is infinite, nothing is assured, nothing is perfect, least of all ourselves. We can react to realisations with terror and with apprehension, or understand that pain is what we feel when our assumptions fall through, that there is a limit to what we can do, to what we can do to sustain ourselves, and that the gap between what we can do and what we want to do is something natural and intrinsically human, because we are finite, imperfect, and momentary. 


All the cowboys and your neighbors

Can you swallow up your pride

Take your guns off it you're willin'

And you know we're on your side

If you want to get through the years

It's high time you played your card

If you live in this world

You're feelin' the change of the guard


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