As I have spent time over these last weeks examining myself and the years I spent at college, it has occurred to me that life is cyclical. With each passing season, the tides rise or they lower. It has also occurred to me that this is a fact that is much more difficult to accept within a moment than it is when we have the opportunity to look back on it.
I was lucky enough to have an office on campus for a short time of my college career. I cannot tell you the number of nights I spent alone in that tiny, windowless office, tucked away in a corner of the Student Union, until after the sun would rise the next day. I would work with the harsh fluorescent lights with no sense of time or community. For a person of my personality, this was close to prison.
There were times that the very same office, however, would have eight friends packed in. They would sit on the couch, the desk, the floor, or would lean against the wall, and we would laugh and joke and tell stories and reflect. Or sometimes we would close the door because we had something super secretive to talk about. In any case, those were the moments of bliss for me. On these days, my office felt more like a tree house from childhood memories.
And when I compare those times - alone in the wee hours of the morning, and packed in the afternoons with dear friends - I remember that each of these times came in seasons. There would be weeks of sleepless nights followed by a month of afternoon talks.
Just this evening, I was talking to a junior in high school at the church youth group I volunteer for. As he sat playing the piano, I sat on the piano bench next to him and asked him how he was doing. “Well, I’m doing alright,” he said. “Finals are coming up next week. Other than that, though…”
We continued to chat for a bit. Later on he said, “You know, I’m doing much better now that it isn’t winter. I don’t… I don’t really like winters. I don’t feel right. But now things are changing; summer is finally here.” In that moment, I will tell you that he was being as vulnerable as a young man of his age and personality can be.
His life works in seasons. Summer follows winter; relaxation follows months of distress.
And while we don’t all follow the calendar, each of goes through these same phases.
As I think about life being cyclical, there is one thought that refuses to be quiet. When I consider our lives moving up and down, I keep replaying how hard it is to recognize this movement in our lowest moments. Or - to put it another way - during hard times it is sometimes impossible to recognize that things will get better. We call these times our darkest nights or our deepest valleys. These are the moments when it seems that the sun couldn’t ever break the darkness. All of us have been there.
What I wish I could say to myself in those moments - or, more frankly, what I wish I could believe in those moments - is that none of us are cursed. Each of us follows a path that goes up and down at times. This same path, though, always moves forward.
One of my very favorite movies is Friday Night Lights. When I was watching it a few weeks ago, a line resonated with me that I had never particularly noticed before. Mike Winchell, who is the senior quarterback on the football team, ask his coach:
You ever feel cursed, Coach? Like, no matter what, inside your heart you feel that you’re gonna lose. Like something’s hanging over you, following you like a witch or a demon that just… I feel like that all the time.
There were times over the last few years that seemed this way to me. No matter what I said, I hurt a friend. When I said nothing, another was hurt. I made the wrong decision, couldn’t pass the test, and forgot obligations like a CD on repeat. Or maybe it was one bad choice that seemed to ripple endlessly. In the movie, Coach Gaines responds to Mike’s question like this:
Fact of the matter is, I believe that, uh, our only curses are the ones that are self-imposed. You know what I’m saying?
Playing back the scenes of my life that seemed the darkest or loneliest, it becomes clear that much of the reality in those moments was self-constructed. These times were not without end and I was not cursed. But, our self-fulfilling prophecies can complicate things. When we feel like we are going to let everyone down, we’re much more likely to do so. When we feel like we’re going to fail that test, flop on that project, or fall short - it’s very possible we’ll be correct. Or, as Henry Ford said it, “Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t, are both right.”
I hope these are lessons I carry with me into the frustrating parts of the future. When life seems to be unraveling I should remember that there is another side to that cycle. Also, we often perpetuate our own darkness.
As the sun sets, so also must it rise.