When the Pendulum Swings

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!

Let’s Call It “Experience”

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

When I was a kid, I wanted an Easy Bake Oven.  Think about it: a toy in which a lightbulb provides the heat source to bake all kinds of delectable confections and a kid obsessed with delicious goodies.  Why wouldn’t the two be destined for one another?  But, I never got one.  Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The other day I was talking with friends, and someone said, in the stilted tones of a disgruntled 10-year-old,  “I never got one either. My mom thought they were stupid.”  My own mother’s sentiments exactly.

The Christmas orgy of gift-giving affords many opportunities to think about what to do, or what it means, when you don’t get what you want.  Disappointment in the gifts received is only the tip of that iceberg.  We hang so many hopes and expectations on the holiday — we want someone to stick a bow on us and say, “You’re my present this year” like in the coffee commercial.  We want that moment when we are completely aware that our life is rich and full of meaning (resulting in our buddy Clarence getting his wings).  We want to sing in four-part harmony about the white Christmas of our dreams while wearing gorgeous red-velvet dresses…ok, maybe that one is just me!  You get the picture, though.

I, personally, have been lucky in two ways.  First, growing up in a family with six children and a limited income, I had many opportunities to learn that I might not get everything I wanted.  I learned many coping mechanisms for this, from swallowing my disappointment with a 2000 calorie chaser of fudge to learning to be happy with what I did have.  Admittedly, some mechanisms were more helpful than others.

The second way in which I have been lucky is that, in the past year or so, I’ve gotten more than I ever expected on so many levels. I won a cruise, for crying out loud, not to mention healing relationships and recovering self-esteem along with some pretty amazing bike rides.  And I’ve been learning healthier coping mechanisms too.

Which, it turns out I’ve needed recently.  I got so accustomed to getting whatever it seemed I wanted, that I started to forget that life doesn’t work that way 100% of the time.  And BLAM! I ran smack up against it: not getting something I really wanted. Had this been something material, like an iPhone or a Nook, I think I would have taken it in stride.  But in the realm of emotional desires, I’ve discovered it can be much harder to find a way to manage extreme disappointment.  Here’s how I’m proceeding:

1.  I remind myself of the Randy Pausch quote, above.  Experience, as he refers to it, is just another name for living life as fully as possible.  And that is, deep down, what I truly want.

2.  I remind myself to be grateful for all I do have.  The list is long, and astounds me when I really think about it.

3.  I surround myself with people who make me laugh, to balance the private moments when, sometimes, I cry.

4.  I take action in other aspects of my life in order to feel positive momentum:  craft room clean, check; menu planned for the week, check; Tupperware organized, check. (If you know me, you’d better be laughing at this last one – when have I EVER been the kind of person who has orderly Tupperware?)

In these ways, even the awful feeling of not getting your heart’s desire can be transformed. Not what you expected, but not at all shabby.  And you’re able to remember that gifts come in their own time.  I believe that hope and patience are excellent qualities to cultivate because they contribute to resilience in the face of disappointment. And because, despite what you feel today, you can never know what the future holds.

Which brings me back to the Easy Bake Oven.  I received a Christmas gift on which there was a tag which read, “From Santa:  Sorry!  I’m a few years late with this. ENJOY!”  I’m sure you know what was waiting under the wrapping paper. Sometimes, if not always, you do get the things you want. Maybe in a slightly delayed time frame, or from a source you never anticipated.  Being ready for either outcome is, perhaps, what experience is meant to teach us.

Resilience

I had planned to write a humorous post this week, but that will have to wait.  What I find myself thinking obsessively about today is resilience.  “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (thank you Webster’s) is quite a profound grace.

When adversity strikes, it is tempting to wallow.  I mean, who hasn’t wanted to spend days – if not weeks – in the slough of despond crying “Woe is me”?  I know it doesn’t sound like something you would do voluntarily, except that when life falls apart around you it is suddenly a pretty appealing option.  Compared with the alternatives, like bearing it with good will and a sense of humor, self-pity seems incredibly seductive.

But as Samuel Johnson said, “Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.”  If this is true, then using the moments of our biggest hurdles to learn our own capacities can be an opportunity for deep growth.  But how do we develop this kind of resilience?  Are we born with it, or do we discover it within ourselves when we exercise the only real power we have in these moments — the power to choose our own reaction?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl wrote powerfully about this power of choice.  In his case, the crucible for discovering his own capabilities was life in Nazi prison camps.  For most of us, the adverse conditions in which we find ourselves do not compare with Auschwitz.  They are more likely illness or injury, burnout, stress, chronic financial strain, cars breaking down when we can least afford them to.  I don’t mean to minimize the pain of these experiences, only to point out their less than epic nature.  We think we might rise to the occasion in an epic struggle.  But what about simple, daily, hurdles which drain our pocketbooks and/or leach our positive energy?

I’ve come to believe that resilience can be cultivated.  I’ve watched my friend Dave build it in his daughters by telling them daily, “Is this how you want to feel?  If not, then choose something else.”  And those girls are able to redirect their emotional energy – the first step is learning that it is possible to do so.  (In fact, Dave has given me the same lecture time and again, with good, if mixed, results. Like a second language, children learn this more quickly than adults.)  Sometimes, you cultivate your capacity to bounce back by pretending.  During resident assistant training every year, I tell my student staff that they need to project calm in emergency situations — they don’t have to actually feel calm, just act that way.  The secret hidden in this advice is that projecting calm often leads to mastering your feelings of panic.  Projection won’t take you all the way, but it can help to jump-start movement in a positive direction.

The other day my friend Melissa was feeling burned out.  She found that focusing on something she could control, rather than focusing on her burnout, made the difference. She told me, “I’m glad to see I’m pretty resilient these days… a 4.5 mile jog and a swim at the beach helped me bounce back.”  Another friend, facing yet another financial setback, worked to get his thinking aligned in order to flow with the current rather than get caught in the riptide of self-pity. His mantra was, “I’m fluid, I’m fluid, I’m fluid”.

Important in both of my friends’ abilities to face these difficult moments was choosing to bounce with resilience rather than splat with despair.  This kind of choosing may look relatively simple from the outside, but superficial or platitudinous thinking won’t actually cut it.  We have to want it, more than we want to win the “I have the worst life” story contest we carry on inside our heads (come on, that’s not just me, is it?!).  And wanting it, we have to also choose it, consciously, in each moment.  So, today, I pledge to cultivate resilience in myself — and to support those I love in finding the inner resources to choose it themselves.  Let’s go for the bounce, people!

A Funny Thing Happened…

…on my way to the flash mob.  For those unacquainted with flash mobs, they are groups of people in public places who appear to be going about their normal business, then suddenly break into a prepared action — often, and in the case of the story I am telling, choreographed dancing.

It was the last week of classes, which on college campuses typically means we’ve reached the crescendo of stress and anxiety for the semester.  Our programming staff, for this reason, plans a week of stress-busting activities.  My friend Tricia needed a quick replacement for pet therapy (a popular annual program) due to last minute difficulties.  We brainstormed, and came up with the idea of doing a flash mob.  Tricia enlisted a diverse group of students, faculty and staff who, led by three of our amazing international students, would surprise the campus with a seemingly spontaneous dance during lunch on Thursday.  No way was I going to miss it because, as you all know, I’ve gotta dance!

At noon on Thursday, we met in the private fitness classroom to practice our dance prior to the performance.  I was having a great deal of fun until a jump/spin ended in pain so severe I thought I would pass out.  My left knee, which has been bothering me for several weeks, just had it.  But I really didn’t want to miss the flash mob, so I hobbled through it, hiding in the very back row because I could only do the arm movements.  There is a cell phone video of the dance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQVQAjDOGWQ (if you have not already clicked on the link on my facebook page).

Thursday afternoon and Friday were spent either limping painfully wherever I needed to go or with my leg up, icing.  (Never having had this kind of injury before, I had no idea how good icing something could feel, by the way.) I tried not to be a baby about it, and failed miserably.  By Friday afternoon, I just wanted to go home and feel sorry for myself, nurse my wound with more ice, and obsess over how this would derail my fitness efforts. 

Saturday, I had a sauna scheduled at Sisters Health Club.  As I have shared before, the far infra-red sauna is my happy place, and a good 30-minute session of sweating profusely while reading O Magazine beckoned to me in my despair.  When I arrived at the club, co-owner and trainer, Kylie Helgens asked me how I was doing.  I told her about my injury and promptly burst into tears.  I believe my next words were, “I miss my endorphins”, followed by a description of my fear that this would mean a real setback to both my fitness and weightloss efforts.  If you live in Cedar Rapids and need a place to work out, you really need to check into Sisters.  The women there, Kylie and Mary Beth Helgens, all the staff, and the members are the most positive, affirming and supportive people you could ever meet.  I am grateful every day for their encouragement and cheer — by the time I left on Saturday, I had a plan of action, my fears were assuaged, and I had rededicated myself to a positive outlook. 

I wish I hadn’t injured my knee.  However, as silly as the flash mob may seem, I wouldn’t go back and change my mind about participating.  When I finally see the doctor (on June 4, earliest appointment I could get) we’ll figure out what comes next on that front. In the meantime, I made a New Year’s resolution in 2009 that I intend to go on keeping:  to choose people and doing over being alone and fearful.  When you do this, sometimes you get hurt.  But the hurt is nowhere near as deep as the happiness that comes from actually living your life.  And sometimes, no matter what, you just gotta dance!