Use It or Lose It?

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I'm reading Cherise Sinclair's Eventide of the Bear, the third in the Wild Hunt Legacy series. This book is about a bear shifter who is unjustly banished into the forest, only to return to civilization several years later. As the story develops, we learn that Emma had been a bard before she was banished, but she'd been living alone in her bear form for over three years by the time she is integrated into a new community. She doubts her ability to sing anymore, and declines the invitation to entertain and educate the local shifters with her music. She explains that she is out of practice and no longer has the capacity to serve as bard, an honored position in the clan. The leader of the clan rejects her reluctance and assured Emma that she could no more lose her capacity to sing as she could lose her ability to breathe. As he explains to her, "A tail does not disappear, even if it is not wagged."  I had to think about this statement, and I'm not sure I agree with it. I'll lay out both sides of the argument and you can tell me what you think in the comments. At issue is the idea that inherent parts of ourselves do not evaporate into thin air, even if we don't utilize them. As the clan leader stated, the tail still exists, even when it doesn't wag. And that is true as far as it goes. But the question is, if the tail never wags, do the muscles that allow it to wiggle back and forth atrophy to the point where it can no longer move? I'm not sure about tails, but I know that the use it or lose it principle applies to lots of other things.

Toward the end of my mother's life, I watched her come to the unwelcome realization that all of the activities and behaviors necessary to health and wellbeing were no longer available to her. She spent years, decades, probably, intending to start her diet the following Monday, or begin an exercise program or a physical therapy regimen at some point in the future, when she had "more time" (this from a woman who was retired for twenty years before her death.  Have you ever noticed how incredibly busy and unavailable retired people are?  It astounds me how little time for useful or productive activity these folks have. But I digress). That time never seemed to come. In fact, I remember laughing, although it was more sad than funny, when my mother decided that she would adopt the habit of eating a piece of dark chocolate each afternoon, because "they" said it was good for one’s health. When I pointed out that "they" also touted the significant health benefits of exercise, adequate water intake and an avoidance of refined sugar and starches, my mother wanted nothing to do with that aspect of what “they” had to say. She died from neglecting her health until it was too late to help herself, even if she'd been willing to do so. Use it or lose it.

And what about other elements of life?  Must we use them or lose them, too? What about our cognitive capacity?  I've read numerous studies that suggest our mental abilities are very much in the use it or lose it basket. While our brains might not disappear, their ability to function well does. And while I've often heard that the resumption of intimate relations after a romantic lull is like riding a bike, it seems to me that certain parts of our anatomy benefit greatly from regular use.

Just because a part continues to exist definitely doesn’t mean that it works well or at all. I think I'm going to have to conditionally reject the premise of the clan leader in Eventide of the Bear. In most cases, lack of use means loss of access to capabilities. There might be a couple of exceptions to that rule. First, there is probably a time component, as with my mother and her unhealthy habits. We can resolve every January 1 to walk three miles a day, or get to the gym several times a week. But the longer we don't act on our resolutions, the more we increase the risk of having our choice in the matter taken away. I think that we could not use it and not lose it for a while, but eventually we cross a line that represents an event horizon. At some point, and each situation and circumstance is different, there is no going back.

The other exception relates to an inherent talent or an intrinsic part of ourselves. I think this is what the clan leader meant when he convinced Emma that her identity as a bard was in no way diminished by not exercising her talent. Art is like that. It is a part of us, whether we express our creative abilities or not. I am a writer. As I described in an earlier post about why I write what I write, I've known from a very early age that I am a writer. The fact that I didn't write creatively for many years did not detract from my inherent being as a writer. In my essential self, I wrote. Sometimes, it just didn't come out on the page. But my writing expressed itself in my devotion to reading, in my love of words and my ecstasy in the presence of a beautiful turn of phrase, or in my ability to be transported beyond myself through the magic of others' writing.

It's taken me a long time to come back to myself and to write again. At this point, I write for the love of it, more than for an audience, although I am deeply grateful to everyone who reads my offerings to the Muse. And if I never wrote another word, I would still be a writer. It's who and what I am. It is more integral than a tail, more necessary to the fabric of my existence than many of the other threads of my personality.

So for some things, the most important things, the things that make us who we are at our deepest level, use or disuse is immaterial. We don't need to use it not to lose it. For some aspects of ourselves, we can no more lose our abilities than we can stop breathing. Perhaps I won't be a writer in the next life. But I don't really believe that. It's too ingrained in my soul, and I don't think it can be lost, no matter what. What do you think? Is there an aspect of yourself that cannot be lost? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or shoot me an email.