Monday, October 3, 2016

Mountaintops and Valleys: What Makes Life Beautiful

I took some time today to journal and sketch to make up for the past few weeks of my life where I haven't really done that anywhere but here. 

Now I'm back home in Illinois: after two weeks on the road, seeing this beautiful country, driving solo thorough parks and mountains and canyons and you name it, experiencing moments of heavenly exalting beauty and pure joy and fun.

This after 8 months living and working in Colorado: being in the mountains, adventuring all the time, and being in community mostly with people who prioritize a breathtaking, full, adventurous, soul-rumbling, beauty-filled existence more than just a 'living.'

That's been really beautiful. It's been really nice to go hiking every. single. day in a national park. I like that so much better than ending a work day at a bar, or at someone's house, or in front of a television set, or going shopping. I like making time for adventures, I like planning to go places and do unique things- like it's second nature, like it's just what you do.
I like talking about life, about ideas, about art, about growth, about deeper things (and sometimes just silly, lighthearted, spontaneous things too, actually) more than I do about what seems to run in the vein of the environment I particularly come from: I have a now-heightened sensitivity to these subtle cultural conversations on things like political fear, personal and relational drama, consumerism and materialism- things that were no where near the front burner of where I was just living, that are now often at the forefront of the environment I call home.

But, I've realized some really big and important growth in myself in regards to living with the experience of a sort of 'foot in both worlds.' Not unlike almost everyone I met and worked with and lived with out in Colorado, I went there for a reason. We all did. Something calls some people to lives of change, adventure, newness, more; nature seems to draw it out of people well. 

It's funny: before you go, you're the odd one out of your group back home, the one who's just getting up and going to the mountains. 

But then you get to the mountains, of course, and you meet up with all the others just like you. And there you kind of find your tribe: it's not proximity, or geographical location, or your hometown, or these external factors that unite you. 

It's something inner
It's something like the ability to take ownership over the story of your life. Or at least to try to, for some; to make a beginning. A lot of good magic happens when you have the risk-takers, the believers in beauty, the seekers of something bigger than themselves, the humble surrenderers to the awe of life, all in one place. It's life-giving. It's enriching.

Great relationships develop. Wisdom is shared. Ego is reduced. People are rocked and awakened by living for interesting reasons like growth, beauty, freedom- not just self or comfort. For the past few months of my life, 'commonplace' hasn't been common. 

And, to put it as nicely as a friend of mine did over coffee the other day, 'it just isn't the space of loving life that most people in suburban Illinois exist in.'
True. Because let's face it: there's no arrestingly beautiful scenery here. Which means there are no extracurricular activities to bring you in touch with it. Which means that adventure and mind-blowing beauty, if that's really your thing, is realistically easier to find a few states over. 

Which means that if you really want it in your life, you have to be not only a dreamer, but a seeker. 

And in an environment where mortgages and 9-5s and yard work and family affairs are more readily in-your-face than weekend mountaineering, and you have a lot more responsibilities competing for your time, you really have to have a strong internal sense of values and priorities if you want your life to add up to what you wished it looked like.

It's an important thing I've learned, especially after my road trip. An adventurous life isn't born of a complacent daily existence: if we want to be experiencing beauty and fullness of experience, we have to be aware of what we value. Not just what we know, have knowledge of, or think, but what we value.
What you value builds your character- and that's the thing that carries you anywhere. What you simply know is not necessarily what you will act upon. You act upon character: what has been internalized into who you are. Knowledge is simply something you have, it is not something you are. Living a wise, well-guided life will never come from what knowledge you have: it will come from how you apply it.

I remember beginning to learn this when I was 25, and had just gotten back from Peru. For three months I was there teaching English. It was the first big leap of faith I ever really took in my life, I felt: it was as high as an experience as I could have had. I left a boring job, a crummy relationship, a crumbling family structure, and a life that could have yielded growth in a traditionally respectable career field- because I didn't want any of it. So to South America I went. Which of course is the very, very short version.

And another thing I'll never forget was how rock bottom low being home felt afterwards.
It consumed me totally: that I had just had the most amazing experience of my life, and now I had to be back home, without a real plan, without the same sense of new-ness and wonder and amazingness all around me all the time, and with all the things I just ran away from, tempting me to go back to them- if not in reality than mentally and emotionally, which is sometimes even worse. Feeling pulled in two directions: outside, and inside.

At the point of that transition, obviously, I was young. I was immature. I was asking the temporary joy of an experience (albeit a good one) to sustain me once that experience was over. I was expecting that because the outside had temporarily changed, that that somehow meant the inside would follow (and stay). But that's never the way.

At the time, I didn't yet have a firm understanding (or even exposure to) the idea that my realest and truest sense of identity had to be rooted in something more than just what I did, what I thought, or what I experienced. There were senses of wonder, beauty, joy, service, growth, exposure, composure that I had been exposed to in Peru, I now see, for a reason. 

I am supposed to wake up every day with a sense that the world is new- a blessing, a gift, a joy- except I just wasn't looking for that constant, eternal thrill from a constant, eternal source.
I didn't then have a mature, eternal perspective to inform me that living from my character- who I was, not what had happened to me, or what I had experienced, or what I knew- was the safest real bet for my true and genuine happiness because my character is the only thing that will really influence my ability to choose how I see- and do- my life. 

But I've noticed something this time around, being home from Colorado. There's been a lot of spiritual growth from 25 to 29 for me. Our sense of who we are outside of God will always be conditional, because outside of God, that's our nature: we are not consistent, our experiences (and moods, desires, wants, emotions) are always changing, there is nothing in us that is not prone to being tossed about by the world and letting the outside corrupt and sink the inside over periods of time unless we have an eternal anchor. 

No matter how much personal mental strength we can muster, we're always prone to fall when we try to secure our sense of self without our sense of God. It may seem good for a while, but it never seems to last. Sure, we can always find or manufacture, seek or go after, the things we want in life- and I think we should. 
But I think once you're in the habit of doing that often enough, you find there's another summit to ascend: and that is that even if the life you thought you were seeking is fuller than you ever dreamed possible, it still isn't as full as it would be with God.

When we expect every instance of life to make us feel like the one on the top of the mountain, we will always be comparative, disappointed, and inauthentic in our self and spirituality. There's a void that only something voidless- totally whole- can fill. It's not something in this world.

But when we know that life is not always about how good we feel (that is not its primary purpose, to be unalterably happy all the time), and we see that life has a higher purpose, we're sort of really, authentically in the flow of it. 

Illinois is isn't Peru. And it isn't Colorado. But in terms of deriving any sense of real, true, deep, personal joy from place, well, I don't do that any more. When you are willing to put all of your happiness into something you can't lose, something that won't change, you get to bring it with you wherever you go. And so your real joy isn't conditional anymore, once it's in something that you personally are too small to carry. 
I've started to learn that I'm not entitled to live life at the top of the mountain, in a state of what feels to me like nirvana, in perpetual bliss. Nothing in life is like this: not our relationship with ourself, not our relationship with God; not our lives raising children or engaging in marriage or pursuing careers. Everything changes- and that's good and it should. But we operate wholly and fully in our roles when God operates wholly and fully in us. 

For as much bliss as we may have in any of these areas, we can't stay there. And we're not meant to stay there: we don't grow there. As sure as I am God moved me to what I perceived as the high, I am also sure (at this point in my life) that He moved me back down to what I perceive as a low. And I am also sure that my perspective on high and low, good and bad, doesn't even matter.  

My obedience to Him, in being where I am, is what matters. My obedience in taking ultimate rest in Him- and not my activity- is what matters. The turning of my eyes and tuning of my heart to His peace, and not whatever I can muster up for myself, matters. 

At the end of the day, that's about it.
This awareness is connected to how character works, not knowledge. Again: knowledge is external. Character is inner- who we are. A human-driven sense of spirituality is about gathering and gathering more and more knowledge to claim what we think we know and go the direction we think we're meant to go. 

A spirit-driven sense of spirituality is about listening patiently to where He's asking us to move because the fruit of our life is needed not for our prosperity only, but for His glory: to make a life of love known to the world. It is an ever-deepening awareness of who God is and what He wants for us. It is a movement into a life that depends on Him alone. 

The two yield no where near the same results. 

Pride is amusingly consumed with our happiness: our own positive feelings, our own entitlement to 24/7 on top of the mountain, our tedious, short-sighted responsibility to building our own empire at the expense of paying attention to what our soul is really calling us to. Pride never lets us see God in the storm because we're looking at our own misfortune, thinking about our own fear, and wondering why we just can't stay in the state of bliss at the top of the mountain. 
But humility makes space to see God everywhere: it says, 'I look at Him in joy, in beauty; I look at Him in pain and uncertainty. I know His nature is love (and that mine is disastrously and inadequately less so), and I know He works all things for good if I meditate on Him more than self.'

Colorado taught me things, sure. Many things: wonderful, enriching, amazing things. But more than it taught me, it shaped me. That is the thing: experiences- good or bad- are not just meant to be reflected on and applied as teachings to the direction we think our life is going. 

Experiences- good or bad- are the refining fire we must undergo to be shaped, to become something, not just to keep learning things. I used to ask (I think it is common to ask): 'what's the purpose of this experience?' But that only leads us further into our own interpretation. It is more revolutionary to ask: 'who am I becoming from this experience?' 

What inner things are happening? What is going on between me and my Creator- not me and this world.

What bigger things do I see?
What is God doing with me, and in me, and through me? Do I know what His call on my life is, will I follow with bravery and become that person He has designed, by going where He sends me and listening when He speaks?

These are the questions I'm learning to direct my thoughts to with every new adventure. There will be more: there has to be more. I think we all sense a whole life out there for us that is connected not only to how we are bettering and transforming ourselves, but how we are bringing good into the world. 

And have to go on journeys- from Illinois to Colorado, and back; from the valley to the mountaintop, and back- to do that.

Some we take because we're trying to find ourselves. And some we take because we know.

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