Acme. Summit. Apex. High point.
In life, we all have times of feeling on top of our game, at the top of the hill, so to speak. What defines these peaks depends upon many facets: physical health, intellectual vigor, emotional well-being, and active creative expression. The latter three aspects are fluidly available for edification at all times of our lives, from age seven to age one hundred and thirteen. But the first – physical health – is finite, its looming shelf life throwing all other aspects of my life into question.
At thirty-six years old, I ponder the age-old question so many have wrestled with before: “Am I at the top of the hill?” We all know what’s after that peak: being “over the hill”. On the other hand, can my potential emotional, intellectual, and creative growth collectively outweigh the physical decline of my body? How much of my happiness depends upon my physical well-being, and to what degree so?
Until about a year ago, I felt like I was sixteen years old – no injuries or major physical ailments. I could go for a long mountain bike ride, play a full game of soccer, and garden into the evening with energy to spare. Though I had occasional muscle soreness, I never felt like I was aging until I turned 35. Insidiously, my left hip and shoulder began aching more and more. There was a new level of exhaustion I hadn’t felt before after a long run. Suddenly it hit me: I was getting older. Time was running out to accomplish the things I wanted to do in my short life.
I learned recently that even if you live everyday as your last, even if you really appreciate your life and don’t take things for granted, time still passes by; there is an end to everything. Even if you enjoy yourself as much as you can, nothing lasts forever. There will be an end to that peak, that summit of life. I feel like I have lived most of my life with this awareness. I have a zealous appreciation for life, taking advantage of most everyday, realizing how little time we actually have. But now that I feel my body starting to slow down, I see the “end” getting closer, and I admit it kind of scares me.
When we’re young, it seems like we have years upon years ahead of us to look forward to. Time is no concern; we’ll be able to do anything we want to do. As we get older, those years become less and less; suddenly, looking ten years into the future means looking at a whole different decade, not just more of the same youthful continuum.
I should take a moment to briefly summarize my overall philosophy about life: I am a nihilistic, optimistic realist.
I truly believe that nothing really matters over the long-run. Deep Time, measured in eons, not centuries, provides a calming, comforting perspective. I like knowing that I am not even a register in the timeline of Earth; that in two hundred years, I will likely be completely forgotten forever. No problem really matters. The universe is so vast, and its magnificent magnitude show me just how small I am. This isn’t being cynical or depressed, but having a detached perspective that has kept me afloat over the years, and kept me from sinking during difficult times. Believing that nothing really matters has made some things easier to overcome, right or wrong.
Although I never look forward to going through a good old hard time in life, more often than not, getting through them can create a new gratitude and passion for life. It’s a very long story that I’d like to get into more someday, but I had a rebellious, hard time as a young teenager; specifically, my eighth grade of middle school, and freshman year of high school. There were challenging circumstances in both my own actions, and within my extended family. I felt like nothing mattered, and that I certainly did not matter. I guess you could generalize it as common teenage angst paired with some real-life tragedies, and both spiraled me into a hard period of time with some poor choices. Long story short, I persevered on my own accord, starting my sophomore year of high school running out of the gate, full-speed all the way on to graduating with Honors and going to UC Santa Cruz for college. I even received a scholarship from my high school for “overcoming adversity”. I also received the Physical Education Merit award for my commitment to fitness. I realize now just how meaningful those two awards were.
That time as an early teenager ultimately instilled a rock-solid faith within myself. I trust myself like the sunrise after some of the challenges I’ve risen to. From my nihilistic tendencies a realistic optimist was born. Believing that nothing really mattered freed me to really appreciate, to live fully, and to be more open; to be honest, real, and authentic. It invited me to curiously observe things as they were, realistically. I realized that life wasn’t always rainbows and daisies, and that was okay. The complexity of life is what makes it interesting.
It also made me realize that things do matter, while we are alive and experiencing them at least. We feel that they matter, and that can be all that matters sometimes. Keeping a Deep Time perspective all of the time is unrealistic. While we’re here, we make all kinds of meaning of our memories and relationships with others. Everything feels incredibly important. And it ought to, for living with that sort of vivacious commitment to caring about one’s own affairs can lead to great happiness and satisfaction. Our relationships with others create a network of vitality which sustains us throughout our lives. In the time since my teenage years, I’ve grown far more appreciative of my life and loved ones. Living like nothing matters doesn’t work so well as a married adult with a job and mortgage.
Which brings me back to aging. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to value everything in my life more. Which leads me back to the essential question of this post: how much does physical aging affect our ability to live life with the vigor, lust, and happiness that we have grown to love so much over the years? Am I at the “top of the hill” right now?
If you consider the wealth of wisdom, experience, and knowledge that an older person often has, I’d like to think they are still sitting happily atop the summit of life; that despite any misgivings of their physical health, they are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually more fulfilled than they were at my age. Consider the faces of some of the happiest older people you may have seen: they smile from within, emanating light, peace, and acceptance. Surely they are unhurried due to some physical slowing from age, but that unhurried pace also bestows a great awareness, a real “living in the moment” approach to life. I look upon my elders with respect and awe, hoping to glean some grace from their ways.
I also consider the endless breadth and depth of knowledge, known and unknown, in the universe. There is so much to learn about! Every time I pick up a new book, I am floored by something new I never even know about. This discovery is exciting and motivating, keeping everyday full of possibilities. When I think about legends like Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the poster-child for perseverance despite physical challenges, I am inspired beyond measure. He is just one of many heroes in my eyes who simply awe me.
I am not at the top of the hill, then, if I consider self-actualization as the definition of being there. There is so much more I could always be! Although I consider myself a happy person with a calm, content nature, there are many things left I’d like to accomplish and experience. Though I am a teacher of eleven years, and have hopefully inspired at least some of those twelve and thirteen year-olds I’ve taught, I wonder if I could have a greater impact on the world. This sense of wanting “more” from life emerged about the same time I felt age paint its permanent lines on my face. And as I begin the Summer of my thirty-sixth year, the urgency of time’s finity is at the forefront of my mind.
I am actually running out of time to do some specific things. As a woman, this particular age adds another element to aging: declining fertility. I have no children yet, and I obviously don’t have many good years left to do so. Whether Ron and I will have children remains a huge consideration for both of us. At ten years my senior, Ron’s age definitely adds to my concern. But we love our lifestyle together – we’re free to go for bikerides together anytime we want, go on snowboarding trips to Tahoe, stay up late – and we both highly prioritize recreation and fun. Some might call this “selfish”, but I see it as self-seizing. We are seizing everyday, taking life by the reins. Though we greatly enjoy the company of children, neither of us has a burning desire, at least not yet, to have our own. However, we don’t want to look back on our lives and regret not having children when we had the chance. I, especially, am struggling with this issue right now, since I am the one with the expiring shelf-life within the next ten years or sooner. As we explore this life-changing possibility of having kids, I’ve got my eye on those sand grains passing through the hourglass.
Then there are the other things I’m running out of time to do. I’ve already reconciled that music will forever be a hobby of mine, never a career of mine; it took me awhile to let my rock-and-roll fantasy go. I also have reconciled with my gray hairs, which can make me look older than I feel. I’ll never have to worry about being carded again (though I don’t even drink).
What I haven’t been able to reconcile with quite yet is the fact that I won’t be as physically fit as I am now forever. A lot of my identity and personality are tied to physical activities and sports. The threat of losing the ability to do those things is not appealing. I admit it gives me some anxiety to think about losing my skillful ability to flow with grace over the land, whether it be on a snowboard, mountain bike, or my own two feet. I feel most powerful and free when I’m in the groove of a physical activity. The joy from that movement is spiritually fulfilling, making me feel more connected to the earth. I hope I am lucky to live long into my life with full motion. I may not be mountain biking downhill at ninety, but if I can still walk around on my own volition, I think that would be enough for me.
Does everyone feel their identity is closely tied to their physical prowess? Whether you’re cooking a mean chili, designing a gorgeous ballgown, or moving your chesspiece in a move of checkmate, you need your body to do those things. You don’t need to be a pillar of physical fitness, but you need your fingers to do the work. Moreover, we need our bodies in our day-to-day lives. When we can no longer do the things we want to do, I don’t think there’s any sugar-coating the frustration and disappointment that will surface. Despite the sharpness of mind, happiness of heart, or elevation of spirit, this physical decline will be a tough pill to swallow no matter how you cut it. However, I recall the old adage: getting old beats the alternative (the alternative being death, of course). I wonder if I’ll feel that way should I be lucky enough to live into older age.
There’s another factor to consider in all of this: the unknown. We never know how much time we have left, how many “good” years may lie ahead, or when our time is up once and for all. I could die tomorrow, or at 113. Just another reason to live life to the maximum every single day; to appreciate just how far we’ve come, no matter where we are on the path of life. It’s not a race to the end, after all. The older I get, the more all the old cliches ring true: life’s a journey, not a destination.
Getting older does affect what kinds of possibilities are left for us in life, to some extent. But does losing those possibilities put me “over the hill”? Or will the combined future growth of my emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sides outweigh that physical decline? I’d sure like to think the answer is yes. As I sit here in my thirty-sixth year, seemingly the top of my physical “hill”, I hope it’s not downhill from here on out. The success of the esteemed elders before me would certainly indicate otherwise.
What do you define as your “hills” in life? Which kind of “hill” is most important to you? Most importantly, I now consider the question: are there not an infinite number of possible “hills” for us to triumph over the course of a lifetime? Blessed may it be so.