Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#278: Learning to Love the Climb

I was going to write about the difference between "contentment" and "satisfaction," but nearly every dictionary I've found uses the words to define one another, so that's not going to work.

My friendly neighborhood therapist (oh how Mrs. P hates it when I call him my "head shrinker") has invited me to consider the role that contentment, or the lack of it has played in my life. I have spent so much of my life wanting "more". More money. More importance. More competence. More respect. How many jobs, how many relationships have I damaged because I wanted “more” than I had?

The therapist asked if I could remember a time when I was content. When I felt like I had “enough.” I’m not sure I really could. New jobs. New loves. New homes. New friends. They always seem to have satisfied me, but before long, I wanted more than was there. I would drift away, or worse, try to force some dramatic change that wound up costing me the very thing I loved in the first place.

What is the difference between being content with what you have today and being afraid that you’ll never get what you really want? Partly, it’s serenity. It’s accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can. But it’s more than that. Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles was that his life would be over when he said, “I’m satisfied. This is enough.” We all want to be better today than we were yesterday. And we hope for tomorrow to be better than today. That’s just human, I think. But there’s a difference between ambition and frustration. You don’t have to hate where you are in order to love where you are going. You don’t have to give up on the goal because you hate where you are.

This isn’t easy. It’s sounding more and more like one of those twisty paragraphs St. Paul used to write.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. --- Romans 7:14-20
Doo-bee doo-bee doo. He seems to be working it out as he goes along, and I know the feeling. How to put this into words?

You can’t get to the mountain top if you hate climbing mountains. You will lose the trail. You’ll ignore the view. You’ll give up. Contentment means enjoying the climb. It means being satisfied with where you are, and knowing that you are on your way towards a new place that you haven’t seen yet. I may not like being ankle deep in mud, hidden from the sky in the cold shade of the trees. I may have dreams of the magnificent view and the breathtaking winds at the top of the mountain, but they will never be more than dreams if I can’t accept the climb. One step follows another. And each is good. Not just because of where I’m going, but because of where I am today.

Try to imagine what it would be like for an actor who had no patience for rehearsal. How would you learn who the character is? How would you know your role? Without giving yourself over to the process of rehearsal, how could you ever be ready to perform when the opportunity came? You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. And even if you somehow made it to opening night, you would not be an actor for long.

This is one of the secrets of depression. It isn’t just when you hate being only half way up the mountain of your life. It’s when you can’t believe there’s even a mountain top to reach. You start thinking that no matter how long you climb, you’re always going to be in the same place you are now. You lose hope. You might stop climbing. You may even want to get off the mountain altogether.

We all have mountains in our lives. We want to be more fit or healthier. To be better spouses, lovers, parents. We want to retire in comfort and feel valued for our work. The raise. The promotion. The diploma. The relationship. We want to be free of debt or a bad job or a destructive marriage. We all have challenges and the desire to be somewhere we are not. But the paradox of contentment is that we cannot get where we want to be until we accept where we are.

I am not doomed to stay where I am. The fears and anxieties that are slowing me down today will not slow me down forever. I am travelling on the road, climbing up the mountain of my life. I am not where I want to wind up, but the question is, can I accept where I am today? Can I accept that this part of my journey is necessary if I’m going to get where I’m going?

Fear makes me think that things will never get better. Giving up guarantees that they won’t.

Today, I am somewhere on the side of my mountain. I can’t see the top from here, but I want to get there. In the meantime, there are a lot of things good about being right where I am. There are things to learn that I’ll need later. And there are some things that are just pleasant to be around, things I won’t be able to enjoy once I reach the top.

I want to be content with today. I want to be satisfied with this part of my journey.

The trick is knowing how to doo-bee doo-bee doo it.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7: 24-25a
Maybe Paul is right. Maybe I should start by trusting the One who built the mountain in the first place. Then I can get back to climbing.


Photos are from our trip to Bachelor Loop, near Creede, Colorado.


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