Defensive Living

When I learned to drive I was taught to be a defensive driver.  My interpretation of that was to be on the lookout for unexpected events that could impede my safety.  Of course when I was sixteen I believed my lightning fast reflexes and gift of invulnerability were enough to keep me safe without much need for caution.  And now, at seventy-five, after almost sixty years of driving experience and with slightly less reflex time and visual acuity I must say that driving defensively has become more and more of a daily practice.  And lately, I realize that it also applies to my daily living.

I’m fortunate to have the gift of time.  I am no longer in a rush to fit an endless and overwhelming number of “must do’s” into my day.  I am able to make the time to get up and out of the house each morning with intention and calm.  Often I’m up before my 6:00 am alarm (usually because Duke’s automatic clock sends him to my bedside just before the buzzer.) This gives me sufficient time for my morning routines before we set out to my daughter’s house to help get the grandkids off to school.  By 8:30 I have the time to journal and workout before we head off to the dog park for more exercise.  All of this is to say that I can pay attention with less distraction.

Many years ago, when my daughter was first learning to drive, one of her former classmates was involved in a fatal car crash.  In this case, she was making a left turn from a stop sign.  She looked left and saw that the oncoming car’s right signal light was on so she pulled out in front of him.  Unfortunately, he had no intention of turning and had unknowingly left his blinker on from an earlier lane change.  A similar experience, (without incident) happened to me just the other day.  Fortunately, I left plenty of room and time to avoid a collision.  I was driving defensively.  I’ve noticed that the more I let go of what “should be” and simply be prepared for things to not necessarily go as planned, helps me in day to day activities as well.  Follow up reminders, double-checking times and numbers, and taking more responsibility for getting things done, leaves me less stressed and more productive.  Of course moving from an “it’s unfair!” and blame mentality to accepting what is without all the drama, is not an easy shift for me.  It’s takes daily reminders and practice to make progress. 

Another example of this acceptance of how things are without judging them to be wrong or bad happened to me in the supermarket last week.  I often have little tolerance for people who appear oblivious to other shoppers when they leave their cart in the middle of an isle or block a section of shelf while they chat away or text on their phones seemingly uncaring about those around them.  After all, what excuse could they possibly have, I surmised.  Well, I use my Anylist app on my phone when I shop.  It has all of the items I need to buy and all I need to do is glance at my phone for my list of groceries.  So here I was at the end of the dairy aisle, checking my app and realizing I hadn’t checked off the items I had already put in my cart.  I proceeded to update my list thinking how happy I was that I actually found all the things I needed and reviewing the menu for that night’s dinner.  What took seconds to write about this experience actually took a minute or so.  As I was about to finish I looked up and noticed I was completely blocking an entire section of cheeses and a man was quietly and politely waiting for me to move so he could continue his shopping.  For all he knew I was texting my blogging buddies about an epiphany I just had in the dairy section of the supermarket (it could happen…) but he simply smiled at me.  I apologized profusely and told him how I hated when others did that to me.  He waved it off and said it was not even an inconvenience compared to all the other things he could be upset about.  I was humbled.  From now on I will seek to rethink my first response to supermarket blockers, drivers who cut me off, and desk clerks who make billing errors on my invoices and consider what I need to do to move on with a minimum of upset or “poor me” attitude.

I’ve also found that this kind of defensive living is not the notion of expecting everything to go wrong and worrying about every action I take.  It’s more about acceptance of the way things are without fixing negative labels on others for mishaps and unwanted outcomes.  I find it easier to embrace this philosophy now as an older man than I did when I was younger.  Perhaps it’s another perk of the aging process!


Hen writes of a discipline of practice: to approach the day without assigning a limited number of acceptable outcomes and to be present in the decisions that he makes. All of which argues for assessing the consequences of the actions that one takes. Both Hen and George remember the headlong rush that life can be when we were younger. I’m sure that each of us has particular cautionary tales.

What popped into my head was an incident that occurred when I was eight years old. A group of us were playing in a friend’s front yard with balsa airplanes. Do you remember those models where wings and stabilizers slipped into slots in the fuselage – and could be launched with a rubber band attached to a stick?

One of ours had a great flight but landed on the roof of David-Charles’ house. We weren’t sure how to retrieve it. Being kids, we thought ourselves ace problem solvers. I came up with a prudent plan that we all agreed would work. It went like this:

  • Find a heavy, round stone we could throw onto the roof.
  • The stone would roll down and bring the plane with it.
  • The stone would fall down, but the plane would glide away unharmed.

Now the quality of the stone was important. It needed to be round so it would roll off the roof. We did not want to leave flat stones on David-Charles’ roof. It had to be heavy – well, because it should be a consequential stone.

Okay, so the idea was that I would hold the heavy stone in two hands and run up to the pachysandra garden that was in front of the living room picture window and fling the stone with all my might onto the roof. 

We examined the plan and could find no flaw. Brilliant, right? What could possibly go wrong? 

That was the last time David-Charles and I were allowed to play together – I mean, after the tree fort ‘elevator’ disaster, requiring stitches for David-Charles, I could understand his mother’s point of view. And I accepted full responsibility for the consequential stone laying on the living room floor, surrounded by the glass shards of the picture window.

It seems to me that I’ve had a number of those plans through the years. They seemed based on well-grounded assumptions – at least, at the time. 

I read somewhere that the parts of the brain that marry action to consequence do not fully develop until the twenties. (Now this would certainly explain the college years). And even so I have always strived for a well-ordered life. But whether the fault is in our stars, morphology, or a few slippery peptides on the DNA chain, I have some reservations about my ability to apply a strong over wash of rationality to all my decisions. 

Jumping in the Shower

In my youth, i.e. up to ago 50, I did everything in a hurry.  In fact our language reflects this youthful energy and idiomatically reflects our hurry.  Each morning I would “jump in the shower.” Then I’d “grab something to eat,” probably “gobble it down,” and then “run to the store.”  Our culture encouraged us to speed up and our youthful energy matched the expressions we used to indicate our hurry. 

At 76 (I always round up my age in hopes someone who thinks I look like an old 75 might just say that he doesn’t look bad for 76!) But i digress!  I, as Henry suggested, have time now to digress, it allows me to plot my next move. Impulsivity is no longer my friend.  So at 76, I no longer jump in the shower but rather carefully raise my leg over the edge of the tub holding on to the secure towel rack while carefully testing for the slip factor of my foot on the porcelain surface of the tub.  No longer can I grab something to eat, it requires thoughtful concentration and review of whether or not it is healthy, or redundant (didn’t I have that yesterday?) or in need of intensive preparation!  And forget about running to the store- start the car, let it idle for a few, buckle my seatbelt, check my rear camera and thank the manufacturer for that gift, as turning my head far enough around to see out the rear window is no longer an option!

Defensive living today requires thought about most things.  I no longer carry my laundry basket down the cellar stairs cause I don’t want to wind up like that lady who fell down the stairs and can’t get up.  So I use a soft laundry bag and toss it down from the top of the stairs, hold the railing and proceed down the stairs carefully.  I had a friend who had just retired from teaching, was taking her laundry down to the basement, missed a step and hit her head on the cement floor and unfortunately passed away.  That had a profound effect on me. Having broken my foot twice in a year in the same place also causes me to do some defensive moves to prevent self-harm.  I am especially careful on frozen winter mornings where I place my feet on my carefully thought out and executed journey to the store!  

I guess I still do the same things I did in my youth but with consideration for aging moving parts that have become brittle over the years!  It isn’t so much worry as it is an awareness of what could go wrong with one careless move.  Cautious consideration of what I am about to undertake is always a good move.  I now avoid the poison Ivy growing in my shrubs that I am trimming rather than forge ahead full steam, consequences be damned. But I sure do miss the swashbuckling nature of jumping in the shower, grabbing a bite and running off into the sunset!  At least, as Henry suggested, I have the luxury of time to allow myself this privilege!

2 thoughts on “Defensive Living

  1. Yes, I can relate to something in each of your writings. I take yoga and tai chi classes to improve or maintain my balance. At 75, I think it is to improve! Mindfulness is something I admire and strive for daily. It sure helps make food taste better when I eat it mindfully. Besides it helps me remember that I did eat! And acceptance is the answer to all my problems, whether it be slow “old” folk in the grocery store or those infernal drivers behind me who insist on crawling up my…I cautiously look for a safe place to pull over and turn on my signal as they get closer and closer and “Run” off to wherever they are going. While they are passing though, I recall my mother’s words and let them slip out of my mouth, “Go ahead, hell’s only half full!” 😉 – Susan R.


    1. Thanks, Susan! For me, acceptance is easy to know and understand but a whole lot harder to practice. However, if I employ your mother’s suggestion, I may get even better at it! 😊


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