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Sand Pile in the Sand Box By Dr. Mike Colson

I went to war as an older person. How old? Old enough to know the difference between real love and lust, searing hate masking jealousy, and petty anger that supplants frustrations and missed opportunities. Oh, and twice as old as everyone else cramming into military transports, sleeping on the cement at BIAP, or trying to hitch a ride on temperamental blackhawks. In a word: ancient!

Ancient people – a.k.a. the experienced and combat zone hardened expert – get to the point when we believe that our age and maturity acts as a buffer to the common reactions and traumas faced by younger people. The “old guys rule” motto is found on T-shirts and hats and in our heads.

In exploring what older people experience when engaged in arduous duty, whether as a military person or a contractor, I found some valuable information about sand piles. A Danish physicist (Per Bak) set up an experiment in the 1980’s that graphically demonstrates, using sand piles, how accidents are part of the maturing process. Bak developed a computer model that replicates sand being added to a pile, much like an hourglass. As the pile grew, it reached a certain height and then began to collapse. The pile didn’t get any shorter, but it didn’t get any higher, either. It was a simple discovery and it tells us much about what we can expect when the sand keeps falling on our heads in placed like Iraq.

What does the sand pile teach us about us? That collapses are an expected part of work and life. As the body of work expands we develop a wider foundation. As we continue to work little collapses (accidents) become the norm. The longer we work, the more accidents we encounter. The more accidents we encounter the more we learn how to survive. And survival means compensation.

Old guys have a gift. We can stand extremes. To handle the demands of arduous living and working, we get very good at rolling with the punches. The problem with this natural reaction to accidents is tolerance. In time, we come not to expect them, believing we have risen above collapses. And that can be our undoing.

Accidents happen…all the time. They are not random, personal, or even arbitrary. Expecting them, knowing that arduous work increases how they impact how we think, work, live and regularly attending to them is the key to longevity. Sand piles in the sand box - how fitting!

**For further reading on this topic, read “Deep Survival” by Lawrence Gonzales and “Complexity” by M. Mitchell Waltrop.