A series exploring photos, words, and songs.
Photos: Arik Solberg
Words: Dave Shiffman
Songs ♫: On Spotify, curated by Reid Foster
Life is full of highs and lows. If you’re fortunate, you experienced mostly smooth sailing in your earlier years except for the typical choppy waters, maybe a broken arm or a broken heart. While the latter feels like utter devastation, it’s pretty much the typical human experience. It hurts deeply, no doubt, but heartaches from our youth heal, and in time, these scars will cause as little pain as the scars that remain from physical injuries.
Sadly, others have not had the same good fortune and have had to muster up their courage and resilience before they even have their first romantic love. My nephew, for example, has had his carefree teenage years turned into a battle for his life after being struck with leukemia and now, as if cancer was not enough, a rare and very serious kidney disease. I take great inspiration from this brave fella’s fortitude as he has faced these challenges with a remarkably positive attitude. I’m sure he wonders why he has to bear this atypical burden, but I’ve never seen him feeling sorry for himself.
Thankfully, my nephew does have a strong support system. Unfortunately, there are far too many people who have grown up without stability, security, comfort, guidance, and most importantly, love. Even worse, others suffer emotional, mental, and/or physical abuse. This type of horror is far more prevalent than most of us would care to believe, and it causes more enduring repercussions than heartache or a fractured bone.
Not all lows are so serious or long-lasting. Sharting is a bummer for sure, but easily remedied, and has the silver lining of making for a great story. Losing a competition, failing a test, falling short of a goal, and getting rejected are all disappointments of varying degrees, but most of us will all experience these at one time or another.
A low could be anything where you find yourself in an unhappy situation. It may be transient or it may be a circumstance that will require some grit to endure. While it may be something you can alter, like a bad romantic relationship, some changes can be challenging or complex to execute. Other times it’s beyond your control, like dealing with the slow and painful loss of your mom to dementia while also trying to figure out the best way to care for her.
I think many would agree that, beyond facing our mortality, the true nadir of our existence comes from the death of a loved one or pet, which wrenches our guts and devastates our psyche. We all must face grief at some point.
Fortunately, life brings us highs to offset the lows. Sometimes it’s just luck: winning bets, the football pool or at the casino, scoring those difficult tickets for the show you want to see, or somehow avoiding Covid when everyone else around you caught it. Other times, highs come as the result of hard work and dedication, following years of training and practice, leading us to perfect our talent or craft.
Highs also encompass a wide range of experiences, from making fresh tracks down the mountain to earning that promotion at work, from a fun night out with friends to taking that hard-earned vacation you’ve been longing for, from basking in the dopamine glow created by the company of your cat or dog to the excitement of buying a new car. Many people cite milestones such as getting married and having children and grandchildren as their greatest highs, while others exult in attaining personal or professional aspirations.
Surely, life is full of highs and lows. In fact, each week has its own. In my worldview, Friday nights are highs, while Monday mornings are lows. Lows and highs often come within the same day, such as cleaning up dog poop vs. sharing intimacy with your romantic partner. (If I have to point out which is the low and which is the high in this scenario, I hate to say it, but your life sucks.)
Not to be pessimistic, but it seems that life dishes out more lows than highs, especially the older you grow. I mean, just knowing that death awaits us all skews the balance, right? Yet, dwelling on that fate does us no good. Fixating on the inevitable allows something beyond our control to fritter away our precious days, a wasted opportunity to make the most of our limited time on this planet.
I’ve come to learn that how we navigate life’s low and high tides often dictates whether we sink or swim. One of the ways I stay afloat is by thinking positively. Admittedly, this may be more difficult than it may seem, especially for those who have had a hard go of things, but science has shown that having a positive mental attitude can have real-world effects.
To steadfastly keep your head above water, you may wish to go beyond positive thoughts and channel that positivity through kindness. Doing good for others reciprocally makes you feel happy. One form of kindness is generosity. When people hear that word, they typically think of the monetary form. Of course, it’s great to donate money to a person, group, or cause, but the generosity of time is an equal or greater gesture, such as volunteering for a charitable enterprise or helping someone with an arduous task or unpleasant chore.
Kindness manifests itself in other actions such as patience and tolerance and of course in words. Being polite is verbal kindness in its simplest form, but a compliment can really change someone’s outlook and attitude, which in turn fosters positivity from them, and may continue to foment good vibes down the line.
The simplest way of being kind, which requires no sacrifice or effort, is by smiling. Of course, smiling comes from your eyes as much as it does your mouth. Smiling radiates benevolence and joy and could brighten the day of someone who needs a lift.
Ruminating on smiling, I am reminded of something that happened during my early post-collegiate life. I had been attending a party at a fraternity brother’s apartment in Philadelphia, and I found myself mostly solo amongst many strangers. I guess I felt a little uneasy and it showed in my face. While leaning against the wall trying to look cool and confident, an attractive woman came up to me and said, “You look cuter when you’re smiling. You should do it more.” She then grabbed her jacket and left the party with her friends, leaving me surprised and a little embarrassed, but flattered. This was merely a fleeting moment like thirty years ago, yet it resonated with me deeply and had a great impact on my life.
The lyrics of the song “Behold,” written and performed by the Jamaican roots reggae group, Culture, also come to mind. A reference to The Golden Rule, Biblical messaging from which Rastafarian ideology is rooted, this passage also serves as an example of how Rasta dogma had embraced positive mental attitude:
This world is like a mirror
Reflecting what you do
And if you face it smiling
It will smile right back to you
So do unto others as you would have them do
So that your days
Will be many, many years much longer
Similarly, in addition to mooring my thoughts and behavior to positivity, I am buoyed by practicing gratitude. For some reason, lows seem to be much more obvious than highs, but recognizing the gifts that life continues to bestow upon me and not taking them for granted keeps my spirits up.
Finally, the prose poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann has served as my beacon, illuminating my consciousness and guiding me through the storms that inevitably envelop me from time to time. Since first discovering this poem during my college years, it has become my words to live by. My one friend similarly embraces it as her “religion.”
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
by Max Ehrmann ©1927