Summits and Valleys

Maybe I’m just slow and should have seen this long ago. Maybe I’m cardinally guilty of the same thing, and perhaps it’s so prevalent that it’s difficult to feel out. We take in our experiences, our development as children, our parent’s words, and we fashion little idols out of them in the form of absolutes. Our brain actually fashions it’s own little reality.

Everybody comes across pieces and portions of truth along their lives, in learned sage advice, and even philosophical conclusions. And rather than treating them as the jewels of subtle significance that they are, they treat them as universal and communicable. As such, they’re cast in bronze and made out to be irrefutable. Most people, I think, live and think as though everything they know is utterly true to the utmost degree, and will always be so. There’s no margin for any error.

But what is amazing is the contrast between pessimistic and optimistic sentiments throughout a broad spectrum of generations. On the one hand we have those who cannot tolerate negative talk and who appear to refuse to see any downside to positivistic ideas. I hear it in music, in books, in the giddy smiles, and social media posts of those who seem to never have a valley in their walk of life–they’re always in the cloudy peaks. Life is beautiful to them, full of lovely surprise and purpose. A discourse which speaks otherwise is false to them. And they’re right.

Then there are those who seem to never know the mountaintops. They always bring things down, because after all, what goes up… They find idealistic talk irksome. They get blamed of negativity and being party-poopers. They’ve fallen so often from those heights that it has become dim and distant. Their actions and dreams which strive to those ideals become a victim to the blight and disfigurement of life. Anything which dissuades from this narrative is naive. And they’re right.

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Never are two people’s core outlook on life the same. But most focus either on the valleys or the peaks. They exalt the down-to-earth, realistic and even sorrowful times, or the optimistic, vibrant times. They fashion the season they find themselves in–or have known most poignantly–into a reality. Rarely do I find one inhabiting both. Truth be told I tend to operate in one or the other, depending on a dozen variables! Oscillating between one extreme or the other.

The truth is both are ridden with an element of fear. The pessimist hates the mountaintops and fears the awful fall from them while still longing and hoping for them. The optimist denies the existence or possibility of the valleys for fear of their reality. But as with most things the truth lies in the dialectical tension of both. I once said life is a love and grief, both overwhelming and unimaginable, and I think it rings true still. For better and worse we are disposed to fashioning things in totality.

Life is a fluid affair, and our rampant compartmentalization and division into the hierarchal and separate drives expanses of void between us, and in us. When we live on the summit or in the valley and ignore the other’s reality, we propel this condition. We work away from where we live and play, from those we love, not knowing or loving the ones we live with, and we die separated from everything we ever find familiar. We strive and exalt autonomy and self-sufficiency even when it’s togetherness and interdependence we long for. We don’t grow when we’re self-sufficient. Discord and non-understanding lives in those expanses: we bridge them with our exalted and absolutized experiences in order to make sense of what we live and give us hope to live better. But it’s not working. And we are growing apart and separate.

Bertrand Russell proposed a mindset to help avoid the pitfalls of this mistake. He described it as having a “high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy”. We must be scrupulous in how we treat bits and pieces of truth and in what we integrate into our frame of thought and allow ourselves to believe. Because what we think drives how we live. But we mustn’t become robotic or clinical, because sometimes what is logical and sensible can be a lifeless vacuum void of love.

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