Over the years, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on mountains. That is to say that I can tell which ones I can excavate, climb, or go around. I recognize, too, the ones that have proven to be imperious to everything in my human arsenal. Those are the mountains that stay on the horizon, neither gloating nor defeated, but that simply exist, carrying markings of my many revisits and failed ascents without judgment, without ridicule. These are the mountains that keep me humble — that serve as a reminder that life is not meant to always be comfortable, not all obstacles can be equalized, and that no path is fully determined by its challenges, either those won or lost. One success does not necessarily ensure a string of successes, and one failure does not undo every triumph. The potential that any of us have is always evolving.
I was reminded of this last weekend, when I attended a dinner and awards ceremony for Wingspan, Tucson’s premier gay advocacy center. Surrounded by people who have a better than average understanding of challenging lives was an inspiring experience, especially in the red state of Arizona, where it’s easy to feel like an outsider. Several excellent speeches were made, but the choke-in-my-throat moment of the night was when Tadeo, now a mentor in Wingspan’s youth group, related his journey from a hurt, outcast teen to a positive, forward-thinking young man. Speaking of the support he received at Wingspan in his earlier years, he said, “You gave my words power.”
It made me think of all the mountains that need more than one set of hands to move. Too often, when we talk about our fiery American spirits, our sense of independence and self-determination, we leave out the fact that no one — no child, no man, no woman — has ever truly made it on their own in this world. There are people behind the scenes in nearly every story, even when they’re forgotten or rendered invisible. When Barack Obama said, “You didn’t build that,” he was correct in more than a business sense. People may work hard to better their lives or climb the mountains of success — and be deserving of all the accolades their achievements bring — but footholds are not forged by ambition, intelligence, or good intentions alone. Whether a journey is one of rags-to-riches, or hard-luck to hope-filled, no one walks it completely alone.
“You gave my words power,” Tadeo said. Which means someone listened — someone saw potential in a boy who was, by his own account, raw, unpolished, and lacking direction. At least one formidable mountain was conquered when Tadeo’s heart was heard, and someone felt he was worth their time and effort.
I don’t believe Tadeo’s predicament is one owned solely by youth. To be heard, to be considered, but most of all to have our potential valued by others, is a gift at any age.
Too often, though, we have a tendency to expect people to come to us like a finished product. We tend to see them one-dimensionally, through the capacity of their jobs, the character of their families, or through what we know of their failures and achievements. We see less potential: less of what could be, and more of what has been. Personal history becomes a calling card, a predictor, and sometimes a burden — not just when it comes to new opportunities and career changes — but in the fundamental realm of relationships.
And I’m not sure what the magic age is, or how it comes about, but at a certain point it seems like we expect people to have stopped growing — to have reached their maximum potential or to have fallen irretrievably short. Oftentimes, even young elders (45, 55, 65) are spoken of as if they are hopelessly stuck in the past, outdated and obsolete, with little of value left to contribute. They become the butt of jokes when it comes to trends, technology, and the world of ideas. Instead of being seen as evolving — as capable of evolving — they are seen as done. As human products that have gone as far as they’re ever going to go. Move over and make way for the next, better, more enlightened generation.
I cannot speak for others who are entering their twilight years, but I am not done. There are still mountains in my path, footholds to be carved out, and challenges to overcome. At 50, l resist the temptation to fall comfortably into the oblivion of sages, cynics, or antiques. I resist what often seems to be the prevailing social message that youth is valuable and full of potential, while those who are older already had their chance — their shot at making a difference — and are now just burdensome.
I do not see the world as a pie chart, in which all that is given to one group has to take away from another. There is no pie, except an imaginary one, and even then we can make it as big and encompassing as we please. I choose to see everyone, including myself, as works in progress, whether they are 17 or 70. I remember that every one of us will, at critical points along our journeys, need others to help us “build that” — whether “that” is love, personal growth, a sense of belonging, or a new road. I reject the notion that older people admitting to having such needs is a sign of weakness, or a cause for shame. Age gives us experience, but it does not remove our need for assistance when moving mountains. It does not inure us to the human essentials of connection, validation, and closeness. The power of our words, our thoughts and ideas, can never be realized in the vacuum of self, or worse, shut away.
I heard Tadeo’s underlying message as, take people where they stand. Listen to them, give them the power of being heard, and of knowing their own potential. My own experience added “no matter what their age or background.”
Yes, I am everything I have ever known. I am the songs, the scars, the joys, the triumphs and failures of all that came before today, but the equation isn’t finished yet. I am my future as well as my past, and my future hasn’t ended with the advent of gray hair and wrinkles. It will end when it should, with my final breath. I plan on evolving until then. I plan on navigating around, or even conquering, a few more mountains.