I worked on the ranch during summer break from college. I'd just completed freshman year and I wanted the money and I wanted to ride horses and I wanted all the fame and fortune that went with being a wrangler at a summer camp and vacation lodge in small-town Missouri. It was the first time I was bucked off a horse. It was the first time I rode on the back of a flatbed truck, my legs dangling off the edge and my borrowed paddock boots dragging in the dirt. I ate cheesy potatoes for breakfast every morning. I woke up before dawn with a scratchy throat and would walk down the dew-slicked road yawning and rubbing my eyes. I fed horses, saddled horses, rode horses, kept little kids from falling off horses, but mostly I sweat a lot. Eventually the sun would fall and I'd slowly haul myself back up to my cabin, the sound of crickets and frogs cheering me on, or laughing at me, I could never tell which. I'd get there, climb into the shower stall we had tucked into a closet, check for ticks, wash, rinse, and repeat it all the next day.
That was the best summer of our lives, he said.
You know how a manual car feels when you stall out? That neck-breaking jerking motion, back and forth, back and forth? His comment hit me kinda like that.
Best summer of my life? I mean yes, I rode around pretty hills and sang around campfires with pretty people and ran through wildflowers on the backs of beautiful animals....but I also rode around drunk in cars with boys I didn't know and was a free-falling passenger in a camaro that ramped a guardrail and flipped over 3 times before hitting a tree outside a meth trailer in the middle of nowhere. I backtalked my boss and went 110 mph in a 45 and ruined a friendship and got involved with a bad guy and went to work still drunk from the night before and by the time that summer was over, I was glad to be rid of it all. The sludge of a few bad experiences coated my memory of the place and turned it bitter and black.
But to him, it was the best summer of our lives.
He was there, too, he experienced all those things I mentioned above. It was his car that carried everyone from the totaled camaro to the hospital 45 minutes away. It was his smart comebacks I stole to tell my boss off and his foot on the petal that took us to 110 and his girlfriend I hurt so badly and his best friend who treated me like dirt and his ID that bought the beer. He experienced all the things that stained my perspective. But he didn't see black. His memories of that time shone bright, not a smudge in sight. He chose to accept the bad and celebrate the good.
Every element of life has this jarring juxtaposition of light and dark, love and death, peace and anxiety. They turn on each other and cycle around you and can spin you around so badly that you sometimes don't know which way is up. The contrasts in life are everywhere, from the trivial stuff to big time life events.
Eating: Fresh, organic food vs ice cream and beer
You eat healthy to stay strong but then eating healthy becomes deprivation and deprivation overpowers your strength.
Exercise: Strong, healthy body vs finally sitting down
You work out to feel better but then working out becomes a chore and you resent your own health.
Children: Chubby cheek kisses vs freedom
You love holding little hands and kissing boo-boos but there's more to life than playdates and crumbs on your feet and when, oh when, are they ever going to stop screaming.
Relationships: Partnership vs independence
You love your partner and can't do without them but then sometimes, often suddenly, you're forced to do without them and you're angry you ever allowed yourself to need them that badly in the first place.
People: Hatred vs love
You watch towers fall and hear shots ring out and smell the fire of disgust burning but then watch entire nations rally around the fallen and inspire change.
We experience these cycles of good and bad all the time....the outcomes of our day are tossed into the air at random intervals, flipping our lives around with little to no explanation. It is easy to get sucked into the sometimes overwhelming sadness of our routines and surroundings. Same day, same job, same frustration. Same terrorism, same politics, same dying planet.
It's easy to find the darkness. Every time something looks up, something comes crashing down. We finally have a black president but racism is more rampant than ever. We've finally learned that monocropping is killing our nation but our farmers are financially powerless to stop it. My kids can finally talk to me and tell me what they need but now they won't be quiet. That's a lotta sludge leaking onto my perspective, wouldn't you say?
The key is to find the light. Every time something comes crashing down, something looks up. Racism is more rampant than ever but we are finally publicizing, acknowledging, and talking about its existence. Farmers are financially powerless to stop monocropping but communities are noticing this and setting up local, cooperatively-owned grocery stores to allow farmers to save themselves and our food system. My kids won't be quiet but they have voices and healthy bodies and are strong enough to speak and be heard and sing songs and tell me I look pretty when I wake up.
When darkness surrounds the people and places around us, we need to consciously seek out the light.
Allow yourself to feel as much as you need to feel. It's ok to sit in the dark for a little if you want. Embrace it, allow it to envelop you, and then realize to move forward, you need to accept that there will always be darkness to battle. Darkness is what makes the light shine so brightly. We need it.
Find a talisman. It could be a song, a person, a book, a place...hell it could even be one of those "25 Pics That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity" links. Find something or someone that you can embrace and will remind you that pain is temporary, laughter heals everything, and light can always be found. Go to them during moments of darkness.
The more you practice a positive perspective, the easier it becomes. I get swamped by emotion when I feel things....I mean swamped. I get into that accept stage and I just let the feelings wash over my head and I sit there, submerged, for sometimes too long. This is where having a practiced routine helps to pull you out of the blackness. It's easier to find the light switch at night when you've been in the room ahead of time and made a point to look for it. Keep your happy thoughts close by....written down, pinned, frozen in the freezer, or saved on speed dial....and add to them each and every day.
If you look, and I mean really look, you'll see that nature never fights the cycle. Night breaks to dawn. Prey feeds the predator. Life lost is life gained. The cycle never stops, not even when we, as flawed humans, get stuck. Nature follows the rhythm and sets the perfect example for us...there is both comfort and pain in knowing life continues with or without you. Strive to realize that your participation will only make things better, especially for those around you.
Fearing the inevitable is about as wasteful as a Donald Trump cue card. The only certainty in life is that at some point, everyone will return to the earth. So we have a choice......spend our entire lives fearing that the worst will happen until the worst finally does happen, or live each day refusing to be scared of the inevitable and feel the rich, full pleasure of a mind that is freed up and allowed to feel true joy. Might be the easiest choice you have to make all day.
Do like Mister Rogers and look for the helpers. I promise you will find them. Sometimes it's really easy to spot the people who are helping, other times you need to seek them out of the peaceful places they've stashed themselves. Read their books, participate in their conversations, visit with them often, and ask how you can help.
Start a conversation about change. Climb the side of a mountain. Go to a movie. Be someone's kind moment. Leave the house (seriously, get out of the house). Realize that just by being you, you might be making someone's summer the best summer of his life....and consequently, perhaps even the best summer of your own. Be determined to live as if you had only days left to do so...because in all actuality, that's all we're really given. Balance your responsibilities with the gravity of our temporary existence and don't be afraid to take risks and jump every now and then.
I'll end by saying this one last little piece.......when you find your true moments of joy, when you get that crystal-clear perspective that all is going to be ok, relish it without abandon. This eyes-wide-open, big-picture attitude doesn't last long and before you know it, you'll be angry that some guy cut you off and worrying about what to make for dinner again. And that's ok, that's the way it should be. That is life...life that emerges, as always, from darkness.
What do you do to combat despair, dear readers? When you find yourself feeling run down and pushed to the edge by the sadness in our world, where do you go? Who do you talk to? What is your escape and how do you find your light again? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading.