What are we left with? (Our Memories)

I was asked a question recently that was very deep and thought-provoking. A friend asked me if I had to choose between an old age spent losing my physical abilities but keeping my mental faculties or an old age spent losing my mental faculties and keeping my physical abilities, which one would I choose? The question gave me pause because I normally do not focus a lot on my impending aging but it’s natural to think of what life will be like once you are an elderly person. My friend did not hesitate to say that he would choose having his physical abilities intact since he is a very active person and enjoys running, hiking, and exercising at the gym.

He thought that I would agree with him and I do like to keep active as well physically but I also thought of what would happen to my mind if I could no longer process and retain information about books I love, music I enjoy, and movies where I can recite a lot of lines of dialogue from. Perhaps most importantly, I thought of all the memories I have made up until this point of both friends and loved ones and how it would be anguishing to me if I succumb to a disease of the mind where I lose sight of who I am or who my family or friends are. I think that really is a fate worse than physical deterioration because I find that our physical abilities and our peak performance do not last and Father Time will have our way with all of us regardless of how much we exercise, take vitamins, and play sports. Eventually, your body will break down especially the older you get and there is only so much you can do to spot that.

However, I tend to believe that exercising our mind and our mental capabilities can be a lot easier and take a lot less work than it takes to maintain our physical body. We live in an age where you can learn anything you want about an unlimited number of subjects. Keeping our minds sharp by studying foreign languages, learning new subjects, reading good books, writing our thoughts down in a journal are all healthy activities to kind the mind sharp. I am not an expert in terms of how to keep our mental capacities up as we go through life but I would imagine that putting your brain to the test especially with puzzles, trivia games, and sudoku especially can help you preserve what is most important to you.

Unfortunately, I have seen firsthand how sad and tragic it is for others to slowly lose their mental capacities and that is what tipped me towards the idea of focusing as much, if not more so, on giving myself the best show to work on my concentration, my memory, and my ability to learn new things. I believe that we all have that same capacity to preserve our mental capacities although it does take consistent work that not only last years but lasts decades as well.

Part of the reason why it is good to be able to exercise your brain as much as possible is because I really believe it makes you a more well-rounded and thoughtful person. Learning new things is something you should never really give up on. Having a college degree or a law degree or a medical degree is not really an excuse to stop learning and stop exercising your mind to the most you can push it.

We do not know what old age will hold, what will it be like, what abilities or faculties we will be left with but what we have control over is today and what we focus on whether that is mental or physical exercise. What I do know is how meaningful it is to remember what has happened over the course of your life and to be aware of those special memories that are yours and yours alone. In the end, what are we left with? We are left with our memories and hopefully it is more of an endless ocean than a single drop of water.

To focus today on making those memories with the people we care about and the things we enjoy doing will make old age that much sweeter. If your body one day gives out but your mind is still sharp, I think that is the better side of the deal. Obviously, it would be great to be fit as a fiddle and sharp as a tack until your last day, but I find that to be wishful thinking. I hope to remember who I am, what I’ve done, who I met, and most importantly who I loved when that time comes to reminisce and there aren’t many more memories to make.

Having memories in your mind that are fresh and seemed like they happened yesterday is the best you should hope for and what you can strive for by working today to strengthen your mental capacities as much as possible.  Your body at 70 is unlikely to be as good as your body at 70 but I’m a believer in the capacity of your mind at 70 to be as sharp as your mind at 20 within reason.

There are definitely outside factors to contend for in terms of your ability to retain your memories such as your genetic predisposition, your family history, and your own mind’s chemistry, but you can control a lot today through your own actions what memories you will be left with 50 years later. It also does not hurt to start writing down in a journal or diary on a daily basis or at least a weekly basis what happened in your life. This is especially the case if you live an exciting or an eventful life.

In addition, having photographs of yourself at different ages and in different places will jumpstart your memories and remind you of where you have been and what you did. Towards the end of your life, think of what you will have left. Yes, you will have your money, your possessions, and hopefully good physical health but I wish you also to remember deeply the memories you have made from different parts of your life and they are as vivid as possible. Your life towards the end of it should be like a cinematic movie of many parts, one as distinct from the other, and I hope you can look upon those memories you have made with great enjoyment and great fondness for what was and what it meant to you.

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A Lifetime of Learning

Contrary to popular belief, one’s education does not stop when you finish high school, college, or even graduate school. While formal education is often necessary and useful especially for skilled and professional fields, it is not the end all be all for actual learning. Even if you have been through 12 – 18 years of formal schooling, that doesn’t mean that you should stop learning. If anything, you may have the time, the money, and the ability now to study and learn about subjects that you never had the chance to before. Learning doesn’t stop in your teens or in your 20’s. It’s a lifelong process and you should never want to stop learning.

In a previous article titled, “A Wealth of Knowledge”, I highlighted a number of ways and places where you can continue to learn new things to broaden your horizons and expand your interests. As I mentioned previously, we are currently living in a time where knowledge is seemingly infinite, more affordable, and easier to access than ever. While information, data, and subject matter is limitless in the ways that it can be obtained and analyzed, the ways in which you can stand out as a learner is in how much time you devote to the learning process and how dedicated you are to absorbing this knowledge.

Whether it’s coding, learning a language, or developing financial literacy, the amount of effort you put into it will decide how much you get out of it. Even if you’re just learning a new skill or subject as an interest or hobby, it will help you to stand out from the crowd. If you use part of your free time to develop yourself by learning a new skill or trade, it is guaranteed to help you both personally and professionally. There are also different types of learning so if you happen to decide to revisit subjects you forgot about from high school like algebra, physics or chemistry, you may be doing your brain a favor. If you’re not so much into math and science but enjoy the written word much more, perhaps you would be better suited for strengthening your reading, writing, and editing skills. You may want to start your own blog like I did, or become a freelance editor to make extra money, but you are using your personal interests to further your learning to make yourself well rounded.

Reading a new book each month, learning a language for one hour each day, or doing a daily crossword puzzle takes both discipline and effort. A lifetime of learning is not for everyone because it takes some characteristics that some people aren’t capable of implementing. You have to set goals when you’re learning outside of a university or a class setting. Only you will be accountable for your actions and how far you go when it comes to your outside the box learning experiences. It can be difficult to learn new things when you don’t have a teacher or professor looking over your shoulder but you’ll develop more self-confidence, maturity, and intellectual depth by being able to learn and study on your own.

When it comes to learning by yourself, in addition to no one holding your hand through the process, don’t expect others to recognize the work or effort you put in to it. You should be learning for yourself and not for the approval of other people. If you’re expecting recognition just for reading a lot or creating your first website, the world doesn’t work like that. Being confident in your abilities, proud of your efforts, and seeing the fruits of your labor change the world in some way is the icing on the proverbial cake when it comes to taking the initiative to learn.

To make the excuse that you don’t have time or you’re too old or it’s going to be too hard are not good enough. There’s a popular expression that you never know until you try. How can you know that you’re going to fail if you haven’t even tried yet? Don’t limit yourself based on your educational background as well because you may find that you were bad at mathematics but ended up becoming a great coder when you gave it a shot. If you find that you don’t like what you’re learning or that you’ve made little progress over the period of at least a few months of serious effort and hard work, then it may be a good idea to do something else.

You should always be learning something, especially when it’s something new. Letting your creative and intellectual juices stagnate is not good for either the mind or the body in my opinion. Even if learning new things may become more difficult as you get older, it’s still not impossible and it would be good for your mental dexterity. Do not let pressure from your friends and your family prevent you from learning. If they love and care about you, they’ll support your thirst for knowledge. Reading a book, learning a foreign language, or playing an instrument are activities that we should always be encouraging in people regardless of their age and background.

Learning new skills has many mental benefits especially for the brain. ‘Myelin’, the white matter that makes up a good portion of our cerebral nervous system becomes denser when we learn new skills allowing us to improve our performance when it comes to processing new information. In addition to your brain chemistry seeing a boost, the more you learn, the more neural pathways are formed in the brain allowing the electrical impulses to fire off quicker than ever making it continually easier to learn new things. It’s a positive feedback loop for your brain when you learn on a consistent and unyielding basis.

Existing knowledge that you’ve compiled is also more easily retained because you’ll be making connections between the new information you’re learning and the old information that you remember clearly. Having more knowledge and more learning experiences is proven to make you a more interesting person as well. Being able to discuss a wide variety of books or have a detailed conversation with another person in a foreign language are great ways to form deeper connections with people and to boost your self-esteem.

If you’re bored and don’t have much of a challenge in your life, then try something new! Putting yourself to the test with learning a new skill is perhaps the most rewarding thing you can do in your life. In this hyper-technological age, adapting to change is a key trait that you’ll need to take on in order to succeed both personally and professionally. Adapting to the times often means learning new skills so if you embrace this process, you won’t be as afraid of change and you will be better able to meet those challenges.

As mentioned before, your brain is full of muscles that need to be exercised like any other part of the body. You don’t want one of your most important organs to atrophy and stagnate. A good way to prevent the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s is to keep learning throughout your life to make those degenerative, painful diseases less of a possibility. Learning is contagious so if you have a friend or a family member who seems bored by life or wanting to pursue something new, give them a few suggestions and see what they do with them. Practicing a new language or joining a book club are examples of ideal social activities that are focused around these new learning experiences. A lifetime of learning can truly do a world of good.

SourcePreventing Alzheimer’s Disease