The Secret to Surviving Life's Low Points
Every traditional wisdom culture has metaphors for the ups and downs of life. In the Good Book, there's a particular reference to difficult times as "the valley of the shadow of death." The Psalmist who coined the term promptly recommends the best way to travel through it: Fear no evil. Couldn't be simpler, right?
Unshakable calm is fabulous in theory, but in practice—when your dreams are shattered as Rachel's were, or even when you're soaked, cashless, and confused in a foreign country—fearlessness may seem impossible. It isn't.
I just relearned this from a wise fellow traveler: a tired, cranky 1-year-old whose mother was waiting in line ahead of me, wild-eyed with stress. The kid, catching Mom's vibe, looked ready to pitch a full-on fit. Great, I thought as he opened his mouth and drew a deep breath. Just anticipating the shrieks to come was enough to cut through my last nerve like a chain saw. But instead of screaming, the baby looked directly into my eyes, furrowed his brow, and said, "Oy-yoy-oy!"
I swear he sounded exactly like Rodney Dangerfield.
I laughed out loud, which let the rain hit my tongue, which reminded me: I had water. I also had half a candy bar. I even had one credit card that still might work. Most important, I had friends old and new, a world of human beings who've been visiting the valley of the shadow regularly since infancy. I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, oh worried, precocious, articulate African baby.
It often surprises me that such simple encounters can switch off fear, but it's neurologically inevitable; psychologists have found our brains can't simultaneously experience fear and appreciation. That's why it's so helpful to make a list of things that give you comfort, support, and hope. When things keep going wrong and fear returns, lengthen your list. As this practice trains your brain not to fear, you'll notice there are wonderful things to be found in the valleys between your so-called peak experiences.
Step Three: Get the Message
"This is more than coincidence," Rachel brooded. "Screwing up so many things at once? Something out there is trying to ruin my life." I agree with Rachel that when we tumble into a really deep valley, something more than chance often seems to be at work. But after years of coaching, I believe whatever's "out there" isn't trying to ruin our lives. It's trying to save them.
Think about it: Humans are the only creature in nature that resist the pattern of ebb and flow. We want the sun to shine all night, and when it doesn't, we create cities that never sleep. Seeking a continuous energetic and emotional high, we use everything from exciting parties to illegal chemicals. But natural ebbs—the darkness between days, the emptiness between fill-ups, the fallow time between growing seasons—are the necessary complements of upbeats. They hold a message for us. I heard that message an hour ago, when I relaxed in the rain. Rachel heard it when she put aside fear just for the duration of our conversation. If you listen at your life's low points, you'll hear it, too. It's just one simple, blessed word. Rest.
Step Four: Rest Like You Mean It