How not to feel like a frail old man

It’s not as easy as you might think. Here are some things we need to consider just to get started.

First, it would help a good deal of you are actually not frail[1], not old, or not male. That would take care of “frail old man” on all three counts. [2] Second, it would help if the way your body is did not cause you to represent it to yourself as “frail.” Notice, please, that it is the representation to yourself that does the damage in the problem I am constructing, not the fragility itself.  That will become clearer in the stair-climbing example.

What the process is like

That is the point in the argument where I lose nearly everyone. People have no idea the extent to which they construct a reality for themselves and then later—not very much later, sometimes—“discover” this reality and treat it as a part of the common objective world in which we all live. This essay is aimed at paying attention to that hidden part of the process—and then, later, at messing with it just a little.

frail 1How does that work, exactly? “Frail” is an evaluative term that requires an outside perspective. If you were to see an old man shuffling along warily, concentrating full force on not falling over, you might easily call that old man “frail.” But you would apply that term to yourself only if you imagine others would see you in that light. You imagine the way you may be viewed and apply that label to yourself.

But…here’s the thing. There really doesn’t need to be anyone else around to make that judgment. If “frail” is a term in common use, then you have a notion of “what it means.” [3] And when you have that notion, you will apply it to yourself whether anyone is around or not.

So far, we have an old man trying to decide if he is “frail.” He doesn’t know he is doing that, but we know that he is. We know that he is going to internalize and apply to himself the word “frail” when that is the judgment he thinks “others” would make. We have to say that clearly because the point here is that the label is an external entity. The feelings he has are internal; the word he chooses as an appropriate description of his feelings is held in place by social processes that are external.

So this old man uses the word the way “others” use it. Now we can ask, “Which others?”
The short answer is, “his reference group”—those people whom he counts on to make the judgments he approves of and who use that word “as it should be used.” That should make it clear that when you “choose” the people who who will make up your reference group, you are choosing the meaning of the word “frail.” Is it a sympathetic word? A dismissive word? A condemnatory word? Is the criterion for its use set low, so that nearly everyone past the peak of physical fitness is “frail” or is it set high, so that only old people who must move slowly and warily are “frail?”

Whatever is the case, you will apply the word “frail” to yourself the way your reference group does. If you are an old man and your reference group has placed the criterion low and if they use it in a condemnatory rather than a sympathetic way, then the chances that you are “a frail old man” are extremely good.

Let me stop one more time to say that we are not talking about the cfrail 3ondition of your bones and muscles and joints, we are talking about the conditions that will cause you to apply a word to yourself. The word is “frail.” And if you have decided that “being a frail old man” doesn’t serve you well, what can you do about it?

Messing with the process

There really are some things you can do. You can, as I promised, “mess with it just a little.” To do that, you have to know how the process works. This is how it works. There is a loop which comprises three links. [4] First, a)you act and then, b) you interpret and then, c)  you apply. You do this many times a minute for some traits. It is a loop by which your action (walking up a flight of stairs, pulling the bath mat off the bar on the shower door, getting out of a car) asks whether the word “frail” applies to it and receives the answer. Many times a minute. If you are an old man and the answer to your question—the one you are not aware of asking—is always Yes, then you are a frail old man.


Because it is a process and because it is a repetitive process, you can intervene in it. You can “mess with it a little.” I say that on impeccable theoretical grounds and support it on the grounds of daily personal experience.

Let’s start with the stairs. When I walk up a flight of steps, I try to plant the first foot firmly and push pretty hard of the second foot and swing it up to the next step. It takes more energy to do it that way.  The lead knee comes up higher than it would really need to.  But by doing it that way, I feel strong and confident on the steps.

This is not an argument from efficiency. I am trying to meddle with b) and c),  the “interpret” and the “apply” steps of the process. My internalized reference group watches me climbing the stairs and says, “Wow. He’s still got it.” I know that sounds odd, but when you try to imagine how you might appear to others, that’s what you are doing and it doesn’t matter in the slightest if any of those “others” is actually present. It also doesn’t matter whether you know you are doing it.   I interpret that way of climbing the stairs as “vigorous” or some such word and apply it to myself, which pushes the “frail old man” interpretations way out to the margin.

Now if I were not able to climb stairs that way, I would have to rig the criteria a little more. If, for instance, I had to plant the lead foot (carefully) and then push to bring the second foot up to that step, I would be climbing more slowly, but everything else would work the same for me. The internalized other says something like, “Wow. And him with that bad knee, too. Look at how he attacks those stairs!” You see, it really doesn’t matter–beyond a very low minimum– what strength and flexibility I actually have left. What matters is using my understanding of the process to rig the “interpret” and “apply” phases so that they tell me what I need to hear.

I feel the need to pause to remind you that it is “feeling like” a frail old man that I am attacking and that feeding information to myself about how I look, doing what I am doing, is the way I am working it.  This goes on faster than you can catch it so rigging the process is the only efficient way to manage it.

Example two is even more lowly. One of the things I do every morning is to take the bath mat off the rail and put it on the floor where I can step onto it when I get out of the shower. I pull it off pretty hard. It reminds me of that scene in the magician movies where the maestro whips the table cloth off of the table, leaving the crystal, the china, and the silverware undisturbed. [5] Now, I can’t grip it with my fingers and thumbs (bad thumbs), so I roll it a little and grip it with my fingers and whip it off the towel rack and put it on the floor.

Stop for just a moment and imagine a hesitant and unsteady way to do the same job. The mat gets on the floor either way. The difference is in the message that gets sent to me about who I am and how I’m feeling this morning.  “Frail old man?”  Nope.

Example three involves getting out of my car, as you can see in the picture. There is hardly anything I can do when my knees are in that position. The car seat is low and my legs are long and my knees are achIMG_0177.jpgey. So I change how I act, which categorizes that kind of action as my internalized “other” will do it, which changes the meaning of what I have just done as it is applied to me. There is not an internal or “self-talk” piece in this routine anywhere. The action is external. The “meaning” is external. The application is automatic.

So, as you see, I hook my arms onto the two sides of the door and just explode up and out. It feels terrific. It gets the job done (“standing up” is the job) and it hacks into the communication system that would otherwise be reminding me how pathetic I look trying to get out of the car.

My approach to this whole problem–over and above doing what I can to keep from being frail–is to keep demonstrating to myself that I am not.  And if you think that this is way too much attention to pay to “frailty,” be assured that everything else that uses evaluative criteria of any kind, works exactly the same way.

If it is an unconscious process and if it is repetitive and if it uses external criteria (all those are true), then you are going to have to intend an outcome.  You are going to have to act in accordance with it and interpret it and apply it so that you wind up as near to where you want to be as possible.

And then, you call it “good enough” and move on to the next item on the agenda.

[1] If you were uncertain about whether it was really a bad thing to be “frail,” allow me to present a pile of dictionary-provided synonyms: “easily broken, shattered, damaged, or destroyed, fragile, delicate…not robust, weak” and, by analogy, “easily tempted to do wrong, morally weak.” The whole array comes to us with the blessings of the Latin adjective fragilis.
[2] This is largely an autobiographical reflection, so I’m going to draw the examples narrowly. More broadly than just me, but not much more broadly.
[3] And when we say “it,” we mean the word itself. We do know better. We know that words are sounds that we use by common agreement to refer to things. But then “the common agreement” fades away and “it” seems to mean something all by itself. It’s a very efficient way to treat language and that’s why we all do it, but every now and then it is worth our while to remember that “words don’t really mean—we mean things and use words to convey them.”
[4] Or 8 or 13. How many “slices “ are there in a stick of salami? That’s the way it is with “the crucial elements of a process.” You can slice them thin and get a high number or thick and get a low number. I’m slicing it thick today.
[5] More often, I guess, that scene shows up in comedies where someone tries to do it and trashes the entire scene by his incompetence.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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