A couple weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast hosting Aaron Rodgers (one of my man-crushes by the way). He was discussing the way in which he used the lack of recognition he got in high school and early college as a motivation to practice harder and put in more time crafting his sport until he finally got the recognition he deserved. Now, he is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the game of football. I’ve also been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts about Grit, this concept of perseverance and passion to continue practicing a skill or sticking with a project, even when it gets tough. I often expect that one day I will simply wake up and have a great idea for the next best-selling book that will land me interviews on all the late-night shows and launch a successful career in writing. But I let many days go by without actually practicing my craft of writing, refining my skill in spite of the absence of “grand ideas”. At a more basic level, I often hope that one day I will wake up simply feeling happy to be alive and looking forward to the day. Instead of having to work so hard at finding hope and engaging in life, I want hope and a desire to fully engage in life to just manifest themselves out of thin air.
But this hasn’t happened yet. What I’m finding is that engaging in life, just like any other skill, takes practice, which requires grit and determination. When I was younger, I played the trumpet and took weekly lessons from a guy who lived out in the country and had an amazingly beautiful house with a grand piano in the music room where I took my lessons. When I was practicing every day and refining my skill, I looked forward to attending these lessons, excited to show my teacher the progress I had made and continue refining my craft. When I was not practicing regularly, I had no desire to attend my lessons and found all sorts of other things I would rather do. I can’t help but think this is much the same with life. When I am practicing my ability to engage with life and be fully in the present moment, it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning: I look forward to the day and find more reasons to hope. When I am not practicing…well, we know where that leads.
So, what does it mean to practice engaging in life? One of the tools I’ve found helpful is this notion of “opposite action”, coined by Marsha Linehan. The idea is that every emotion is associated with a behavior, and every behavior with an emotion. When I feel shame, I tend to engage in the behavior of isolation, which leads to more shame. When I feel depressed, I feel complacent and hopeless and the world seems scary, and I often don’t get out of bed because that’s where I feel safe. Staying in bed and isolating myself makes me feel more depressed and ashamed, which leads to more complacency and isolation, and round and round we go. The idea of opposite action is to engage in an a behavior that is associated with a different emotion than what is currently being felt. When I am feeling depressed and ashamed, I can reach out and call someone or engage in a pleasurable activity, which helps to break the cycle of hopelessness. This doesn’t come naturally, it takes determination and practice, but I’m finding that it gets easier over time and I’m able to turn around mood swings that before would last for days on end.
I think this practice of engaging in life can take a lot of different forms, and it takes time and some trial and error to figure out what works. Whether it’s meditation or prayer to ground and center yourself in the present moment, taking a walk outside to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us in spite of all the pain and suffering, calling a friend or writing a letter that expresses how much someone means to you, making a gratitude list, or spending time at the end of each day reflecting on three things that went well. The more I practice engaging in life, the more hopeful I feel, and the more space opens up in my awareness to begin practicing other skills that I care about, such as writing.
The world is not short on pain and suffering. Just a few weeks ago, a local boy of 14 years of age hung himself in a tree outside of his house. I’ve met people who made their first suicide attempt at 7 years old. When children that young feel such a sense of hopelessness that death seems like a better option than life, there has to be a better way. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a rich and meaningful life can be cultivated from the most dire of circumstances, but it takes practice.
Some people may feel a natural inclination toward life and have no trouble with hopelessness and disengagement. But for those of us who face a different path, let us not give up hope. Let us show grit and determination in creating a rich and meaningful life for ourselves, even when it is hard and does not seem fun. Let us show life that we will not be beaten down, and we will not give up.
Let us live in daily practice, knowing that some days we will fail miserably and that failure will make us want to give up. But other days we will find success, and that will provide us with rays of hope and energy that make the continual practice just a little bit easier. We won’t always feel like engaging in life, but that’s why they call it practice. And I have to believe that life is worth it.