Mountain Tops to Valleys: Doing More than Just Surviving Life with Resilience – Part 1

About 1 1/2 years ago, my (ex)husband threw me a curve ball, and I sought out free marriage counseling at a local church with the pastor and his wife.  In the end, I was unable to talk Chepe, my husband, into attending the counseling, but I did begin to attend church kind of regularly.  Sometimes, during the message the pastor would speak of each person’s personal ‘sorrows.’ I admit, I scoffed at this; after having lived in a third world country as a Peace Corps Volunteer where the level of poverty is much higher than here in the US, and the living conditions of the truly poor much more desolate than most of those on welfare in my country, I felt that people here in the US just don’t know what hardship really is, don’t know what real sorrows are.  But since that first curve ball that Chepe threw at me, more and more have just kept coming both from him and other areas of my life, and as I grew to feel that I could not continue living within our marriage as it was and eventually decided that I had to end it, I have grown to feel that I understand better what the pastor meant about everyone enduring their sorrows – because it is true: we all have ups and downs and emotionally hard times, we all get sick, and we will all suffer.

Like a Buddhist, I do not want to diminish the enormous injustice of children dying of malnutrition and war, but I am also coming to better accept that, though another person’s sorrows may not be as grave, it hurts nonetheless, and they deserve compassion and love all the same.  Would that there were a way to cope with our sorrows!  Luckily, there are, there are many ways, and no matter what religious path you walk, nourishing resilience within yourself is one of the best.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Dee Fowler Anderson’s book, Sharing Hope, Nurturing Resilience: A Coaching Journey, and it immediately had a positive impact upon my ability to cope with my current position in the midst of a marital break-up, and has left me thinking a lot about how I have practiced resilience throughout much of my life thus far, and how I need to lean on those skills now more than ever.

A few Sundays ago, the sermon at church was titled “Mountain Tops To Valleys.”  The pastor opened by asking how many people had ever experienced a ‘mountaintop high.’  Yes, yes I have done that in my life, sometimes on mountains (not the peaks though), and sometimes in other places about things besides spending time in nature; but right now is not one of those times, right now I’m in a valley.

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A place for little thoughts to grow.

The interesting thing about valleys though, is that valleys are where all the food is grown, or rather, they are the best areas for cultivation.  The same could be true for people as well: yes, we do learn during the climb up the mountain and on the way down, but the biggest life lessons are during the hard stuff, right?  We learn the most about ourselves while we are in the low valleys.  In Mrs. Anderson’s book, we are led chapter by chapter in gentle instruction on how to nourish resilience within ourselves.

“This journey to health is both messy and beautiful, both excruciating and beautiful.”

~Dee Fowler Anderson

Whether in the ascent, descent, peaks or valleys of life, Mrs. Anderson prompts us to know ourselves.  There are numerous different models to do this with, and Mrs. Anderson uses one called the ‘Wheel of Life,’ which addresses aspects of yourself such as the whole self, the emotional self, the social self, and the physical self.  Spending time getting to know who you are is important in knowing how you deal with stress and how best navigate the valleys of your life.  Meditation and just spending some time alone on a regular basis are excellent ways to get to know yourself, as are working on trusting your intuition and trying to be the ‘best you’ possible in your daily life and interactions.

While getting to know yourself intimately, Mrs. Anderson suggests working toward discovering what your life’s purpose is.  I’d venture to say that this is likely not an occupation, though it could be.  Honestly, I think that accepting and following your purpose in life can be very difficult – it’s almost an exercise in resiliency itself!  Culture and society tell us many things: what is valuable, what we ought to believe and think about things, how we should feel.  But, unfortunately, pop culture often leaves us with conflicting values, unfounded beliefs, and shallow feelings.  An deep thought of mine I recently had about this is about the pressure that the public school system puts on students to attend college.  I attended public school, and I also attended college – and loved it – but for the sake of numbers that reflect positively on the school for graduates that are headed to college, it leaves a great proportion with debt that they struggle to pay back and, unfortunately, a career path that doesn’t pan out, as I have heard stats that say that 50% of college graduates don’t end up with jobs in their career major!

But besides this, I feel that the pressure that is in place that says that a college education as the only valuable path, leaves both our society and community putting less value on local and necessary jobs: construction, transport, local services, and the production of local goods.  My area has strong Old- and New-Order Mennonite populations, and I don’t know any of whom have ever attended college, though many, many of them are small business owners.  As I come into my 30’s and look around, I see many of my friends from those groups reaching places of success and happiness in their lives; is it because they don’t have the excessively demanding student loans to pay back, is it because they never had those high hopes that they chased for a while but never achieved, is it because members of these groups don’t have expectations to save the world but to merely make a positive impact on their immediate community, or is it just because their times of sorrow have not hit or I am not privy to them?  Maybe all of the above, maybe none.  Probably a lot of it comes from the faith that they possess and the support of family and community around them while they are in their valleys, though.

Northern Red-backed Salamander

Elizabeth holding a Northern Red-backed Salamander

Luckily, I personally feel I have found my purpose.  As a resilient person, I know it will change again in the future, yet I am certain of what it is right now.  That’s not to say that it is easy, actually, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’ve found it: to be a mom, and to homeschool my kids.  Some of you will click onto the next page now – because society tells us that this is a less valuable purpose than being CEO of X Company, or because it’s so clichéd, but I could look you in the eye (if you weren’t reading this on the computer) and tell you truthfully that I went to college looking for the spot where I belonged: didn’t find it.  Then, I went into the Peace Corps and travelled to Central America looking for my spot: still didn’t find it.  But I did find one who helped me find my spot, so I brought him back.  Incidentally, my biggest fear in high school was that I’d end up in my hometown; well, here I am, separated from the one I brought back, but having found my spot: with my kids and with my family.  I feel that I am lacking little with the gifts of the family I have had all along and the children which were born to me.

I also feel that homeschooling is a purpose of mine.  I am at a challenging spot: newly separated, and looking for work after coming off two years of staying home with the kids.  How am I going to be able to continue homeschooling?  I don’t know.  I began it not because I dislike public school so much, but because New York implemented all-day pre-k and I thought that, for my little 4-year-old, it was too much. Now, I have grown to love guiding her and watching her learn, and especially being with her and talking to her, and I am giving it my best effort to be able to continue to do so because it gives my life purpose.

Interestingly, my current sorrow has left both of these purposes in tandem.  As a single mom, how can I stay home and be the one to raise and homeschool them?  I’ve had lots of people tell me what I ought to do.  My degree and the value that society puts on it and the monthly student loan statements make me feel guilty that I have not seriously chased a career in that area.  But I am exploring various job options that allow me the time to be home with the children, and to have enough free time to homeschool while making a living, because that’s what I feel that my current life’s purpose is.  I know that my son will only be two for one year.  I know that my daughter will only be in elementary for eight years.  Some people are willing to give up their lives to medical school for eight years, why would I not give up mine for my child?  And, who knows, maybe in fifteen years I will have gone back to college for my master’s and doctorate and be a college professor?!  All I know is that, for now, I’d do just about anything (legal, of course) to be able to be the one to raise them.

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Photo used by permission from the author.

Sometimes, we may find, that descents are ascents as well.  Sometimes, we may find, mountain tops and valleys look strikingly alike.  By cultivating resilience, we can take it with us to the top or to the bottom, while we explore the forest and traverse the fields, and live our best life possible no matter what kind of terrain we are on.

“To be sure, telling our truth and working from the heart is hard.  It is rarely ever comfortable.  It feels risky, and makes me feel exposed.  I also know that sharing my story is part of my continuing journey to be whole and healthy.”

~Dee Fowler Anderson

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 about my experience using the lessons taught in Dee Fowler Anderson’s book, Sharing Hope, Nurturing Resilience: A Coaching Journey.  Pick up your own copy at Amazon by clicking on the picture of the book, or on the sidebar of my blog.

 

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