Climbing upward is the perfect metaphor for the process of living, which, if we are willing to consider it, is identical to the process of aging.
How would you describe an older person, say, one who's about 75? What image comes into your mind that seems to appropriately represent what it's like to have accumulated many years of life? A stately old elm tree with huge, gnarly branches? A rock by the sea that has been eroded by the battering of countless storm-blown waves? A once-overflowing river that has dried out and been reduced to a shallow stream? A well-worn sofa that has offered years of repose and comfort to a family?
We use lots of metaphors to describe the aging process as well as someone who has experienced it for many decades. Some images may be positive, but more often than not, because our culture is mainly youth-obsessed and age-fearful, most of them reflect conditions of deterioration and decline.
The most common phrase of this sort is one that describes an old person as being "over the hill." That term has become so widely used that it's grown into a meme of its own (over-the-hill cards) to represent the genre of birthday greetings that rely on harmless mockery of their recipients. But even if we smile when sending or receiving such a card, the mockery isn't harmless at all, because it resonates with our subliminal fear and dread of aging ... and reinforces it.
I think it's about time we analyze this particular phrase.
From the moment we're born, we experience social challenges to our survival and growth. Can we walk on our own? Can we learn to communicate to get our needs met by others? Can we make friends, succeed at school, earn a living, find a life partner, raise a family, discover our passion and purpose?
As a metaphor expressing any of those challenges, climbing a hill pretty much fits the bill. For what does it mean to climb steep terrain? It requires a certain amount of endurance, energy, determination, and practice. When you think about it, we climb a "hill" when we work toward reaching the goal of anything that matters to us.
To succeed in our upward treks, it helps to rely on a few important things. Training, for instance. The taller and steeper the challenge, the more it serves us to learn the ropes, so to speak, for making our way to the top. We can also benefit from having teachers who have had experience making the same trips and guides who can accompany us on our way. And, just as importantly, we need encouragement from those around us who honor our aspirations and our expectations of ourselves, who believe not only that we can do it, but also that we have the right to make that climb.
I'm not belaboring the hill metaphor by expounding on it like this. It really is the perfect way to talk about the process of living, which, if we are willing to consider it, is identical to the process of aging.
Given all of this, how did our culture determine that at some point in our lifespan there are no more challenges for any of us to face, or that it's useless to even try to meet those challenges and instead call it quits and return to ground level? When is it ever OK to describe an older person as "over the hill"?
Here's what needs to be said, to set the record straight: The longer we have lived, the more we have experienced. The more we have experienced, the more challenges we have faced. Older adults are longer-term climbers of all kinds of uphill terrain. You might even say we're the Master Climbers.
No older adult is "over the hill." S/He is at the top of a particular hill and because of this setting actually sees other hills in the distance yet to climb which couldn't be perceived from the bottom of the hill that s/he just ascended.
Let's get over being "over the hill." It's time we stop using this horrible phrase for good.
That is, for the good of us all.