This week I’ll observe—if not exactly “celebrate”—my 70th birthday. It’s one of those milestones that prompts unappreciated comparisons to certain large extinct reptiles and not-so-smart remarks about being “over the hill.”
So let me tell you a true “over the hill” story.
The distance from Raton, NM, to Trinidad, CO, is 25 miles. Driving those miles on Interstate 25 means climbing the long, steep, curving grade through Raton Pass and descending the even longer, steeper, curving grade to Trinidad. In April of 2002, my husband Wayne and I drove through Raton Pass on our way home from a three-month construction job in Arizona. He was driving a semi. I was driving a one-ton pickup, pulling a 30-foot fifth wheel camper. He had to stop with the truck at the port of entry near Raton, so I went on ahead over the pass.
This trip was only the third time I had towed the camper and the first time I had driven it in mountains. My training for this experience consisted of two pieces of advice. One, slow down with your gears, not your brakes. Two, the lowest gear you need to shift down to when you’re going up a steep grade is the same gear you should use when you go down.
Thus prepared, I drove up and up, shifting down and down until I ran out of gears. I tried to ignore all the other vehicles passing me as I climbed more and more slowly, until I finally topped the pass. Now came the truly terrifying part—going down the other side. I kept reminding myself to slow with my gears. Occasionally I had to remind myself to breathe. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad. I made it safely all the way down, all the way through Trinidad, and out onto the prairie on the other side, feeling greatly relieved and somewhat close to competent.
That feeling lasted until Wayne came up behind me a few miles later, called on the radio, and told me to pull over and stop. Which was when I learned that I had driven through Raton Pass with no brakes on the trailer. He had disconnected them to save the battery when we stopped for the night and forgot to reconnect them.
Had I known I had no trailer brakes on that long steep grade, I would have panicked. Since I didn’t know, I just kept driving innocently along, with no clue that my confidence in my equipment was misplaced. I just kept following the only instructions I had–which, fortunately, turned out to be quite applicable to the situation. I was also lucky. It’s the most vivid demonstration I’ve ever experienced of the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”
At the time, I was also ignorant of many other things. I didn’t know that, six months later, Wayne would be killed in a plane crash. I didn’t know that I would eventually find another happy relationship that would also end in sorrow. I didn’t know about the family weddings, the births of grandchildren, and all the other joyful and painful life events and changes still to come.
In the years since, traveling all the unexpected curves and steep grades that shape a life, I’ve left behind the luxury of living in ignorant bliss. I now understand that all of us are mostly muddling our way along with insufficient information and incomplete instructions. At times, we’re all driving through difficult terrain with no brakes. Sometimes we know it and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we’re lucky and sometimes we aren’t. Either way, about all we can do is keep on going.
Even when we flinch at milestones that loom up along our roads much faster than we could possibly have expected—like birthdays that make it impossible to pretend we don’t qualify for the senior discount. Birthdays that make clear life is apt to be mostly downhill from here on, and the brakes wore out several hills back. It’s a challenge to accept that knowledge without panicking. It’s another challenge to figure out the “how” of navigating that road.
I’m still working on both. But a few weeks ago, I encountered a bit of wisdom that I intend to rely on as I go forward. I know it’s deep and profound, because I saw it on a bumper sticker.
On one side was an image of a Buddha-like figure sitting serenely in the lotus position. On the other side were six words. At the top: “Do No Harm.” Below that: “Take No Shit.”
That’s it. That’s my new life plan.
First, to “Do no harm.” Because there is already more than enough pain in the world without my adding to it. I never know what hardships and heartaches other people may be facing. I never know when someone else is driving with no brakes. It’s my responsibility to be accepting of and respectful to those around me.
Second, to realize that “Do no harm” is meaningless without its flip side: “Take no shit.” “Do no harm” is not the same as “let people run over you.” Accepting others is not the same as accepting unacceptable behavior from those who are mean or careless. One of the people entitled to be treated with respect is me.
If, at age 70 and beyond, you can’t speak up for yourself, stand up for what matters, and say what you really think—then when are you going to do it? At this point, what is there to lose? Not having a lot to lose is a powerful place to be.
Heading downhill with no brakes? One word for that is “terrifying.” A better one is “unstoppable.”