When I was younger, in high school and college, I was very deeply involved in religious activities. Several times a year, I went on weekend retreats, which were invariably peak experiences. People who hardly knew one another would open the contents of their hearts, bond quickly and intensely, and share a high well beyond any experienced in normal, daily life. Returning to normalcy post-retreat was always difficult. People returned to their daily selves, and the shared experience grew less powerful as a touchpoint with one another. As the retreat ended, you told yourself things had changed, that you had changed. But the truth was, your old self and habits nearly always reasserted themselves.
I remember Pastor Ross addressing this: faith isn’t a feeling, he said. When the feeling of the retreat passes, you discover that faith is a verb. Something you actively do, not something you passively feel.
It has now been many years since I’ve been on that kind of retreat, or experienced exactly that kind of high. However, for just over a year now, I have been on a journey which has led to similar feelings: happiness, joy, a sense of purpose, renewed (or just new) relationships. My life has had a quality of incipience, every day on the cusp of a new experience or revelation. It has been amazing. I have gushed about it. I have sworn that everything is different now, things have changed, I have changed.
And all of that is true. However, no peak experience, no emotional high lasts forever. And when that feeling goes away, when the pendulum begins to swing on the downward arc, what does one do? More to the point, what should I do?
Option #1: Chase the High
A friend recently invited me to join her at a movie premiere in New York. The movie, directed by Robert Redford, stars several actors I enjoy. I loved that she asked, but for a variety of reasons needed to decline the offer. Several people told me I was crazy; in fact, one person said she wished she had my life because she would live it better than me. Well, that’s possible, I suppose. However, I am still me. I will still make decisions, for good or ill, based on my own values and gut feelings. I will never be the type of person who drops everything else in my life to jump at unusual experiences just to be able to say, “See what I did?!” So, chasing the high isn’t really an option suited to my temperament.
Option #2: Wallow.
As the pendulum drops from its apex, its easy to allow your emotional self to plummet into sadness and depression. Truthfully, there have been many times when this proved to be my modus operandi. In the current case, the things that have changed the most in my life are internal. The outward trappings have remained essentially the same. And now I am faced with the same life choices and decisions that have always awaited my attention: What should I be doing with my life? I have learned to be honest with myself, which felt really good at first, but which can be a bit depressing. For example, I pretended for decades that I didn’t have feelings like other people. Now, I’ve admitted to myself that I do and some of them are angry or disappointed or sad. Part of me wants to roll around in those denied emotions for a while, just feeling them. Luckily, my emotional health is more robust than it once was, and I can’t see the point in wallowing. So, Option #2 is a no go.
Option #3: Remember that to BE has always been a verb.
I’ve (briefly) studied two foreign languages in my life, and while I don’t remember much of either, I do remember that to be was the first verb we learned to conjugate in both of them. So this option suggests that, regardless of what I am feeling, I can keep breathing, keep moving forward. I can keep living in the present, living as this new self I’ve worked so hard to become. And I can have faith – an active choice, not just a momentary feeling – in my ability to continue creating a meaningful life.
In summary: Option 1: too hard; Option 2: too soft. Option 3…just right! Now that I’ve chosen an attitude, I just have to figure out the right action plan to go with it. And that will be both the hard and the rewarding part. I don’t know what will come next. But I do know that the pendulum will eventually hit its nadir and begin another upward climb!