Learning to be Flexible

When I was a child, I wasn’t what you’d call an athlete. (I’m still not, actually.) I wasn’t very coordinated, and I hadn’t learned yet that I could have fun without having any kind of athletic talent.

But physical education is part of every public elementary school experience, and in my case, so was the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. I loathed it. It didn’t test for anything I was good at, like riding horses or reading a book while walking. Instead, it tested for things like how far you could reach past your toes on a ruler. I reached as far as I could, but I still fell 3 inches short of my toes, while the girl next to me (a dancer) stretched 6 inches beyond hers with ease.

At the time, I thought she must be naturally flexible, and I resented having been born to parents who were unable to pass along genes for flexibility, unnatural endurance or coordination.

It wasn’t until later that I realized those traits need not be inherited. I took a few gymnastics classes and found that muscles could learn to stretch, flex and extend. With some practice, I could reach 6 inches past my toes, too — I could even do the splits — and soon it didn’t hurt. It felt like breathing.

I didn’t stick with gymnastics for long, but the flexibility stayed with me. Fifteen years later, it only takes a few minutes to put my palms flat on the floor again.

It’s been a chaotic summer. I’m a newlywed and a planner, so naturally, my brand-new husband and I came back from the honeymoon and promptly got to work laying out the next five years. Then a metaphorical bomb dropped on that plan; after a lot of discussion we came up with a lovely replacement. And then another bomb dropped.

You can see the pattern here. Big surprises and unexpected changes are the nature of the world. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to practice a different kind of flexibility. But our brains can be elastic the way the rest of our bodies are. We can learn to snap back; we can learn to adapt; we can learn to be cheerful in the process. It doesn’t always have to hurt.

I can’t predict the next five years, for myself or for the world, as much as I’d love to. History tells me that things will only change faster and less predictably. I still have a plan for the next five years, but sometimes it feels more like a maze than a path. When we know how to be flexible, though, we can enjoy the detours and find unexpected shortcuts. As long as we keep going in the general direction of True North, we’ll make it to the prize at the center of the maze: a good life and a freer world.