Coping with Life's Ups and Downs
January 27, 2013
Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.
But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Reading from Swedenborg
Whenever we are caught up in our own concerns or those of the world, we find that our faith grows less. This is because many of our concerns come from self-interest and as long as we concentrate on them we will be far away from any beliefs about God and thoughts of others. The reason for this is that heaven and self-interest can’t coexist at the same time because then we would be pulled in two directions. When our own wishes and self-interest stop agitating and quiet down, the Lord works through other parts of us and we can be brought back into faith and charity, which feels in comparison like warmth and light. Such alternations go on in every person who is regenerating.
(Arcana Coelestia 933)
Among the commonest things we go through are the ups and downs of life—we are up at some point and then down at another, and then back up again. It’s like a roller coaster. It’s quite a strange experience, and we may well wonder why it happens and why we can’t be just the same, all the time.
It can happen in different kinds of ways. Here is a typical example that most of us could identify with. One day, everything feels perfectly normal and generally good, but then someone says something to us that bothers or upsets us, and suddenly we go from feeling great to feeling out of sorts or troubled for the rest of the day. Gloom has taken you over, and the good feeling you had when you got up has just disappeared as if it were never there. Try as you might, you can’t retrieve that good feeling. The thing about this example is that you know very well what brought the change about: it was something someone said, and it’s been going through your mind all day long.
But an up or down can happen without your being able to put your finger on why it’s like it is. Some days, you just have a vague feeling of not being right in yourself. You’re out of sorts, edgy, and you may wonder, “Am I getting sick?” “Am I a bit stressed?” or “Perhaps I’m not organized enough!” And then, as you get on with things, you realize it has lifted— whatever it was—and now you’re fine. Sometimes you’re just very tired, and all you really need is a good night’s sleep to wake up feeling completely different.
We don’t need to be too worried about any of this. It is very common and perfectly normal. We go through these regular ups and downs—or downs and ups— and the best thing is probably to simply accept that we do, and not start trying to find out why.
But even so, I offer two important things to remember about times like these. First, it’s not just you! Try not to fall for that idea. Every other person you know has something of the same experience, because we all move between thinking a bit too much about ourselves and thinking about other people and how they are, and in the process we forget about ourselves. There is a good clue for us: if you feel a bit down, phone someone! Call a friend, and be in their world for a few minutes instead of yours.
The other important thing I want to emphasize is that going through ups and downs is probably a very good sign that you are developing quite well. The fact that sometimes you are a bit down and sometimes you are bright and happy shows that two things are going on inside you, not just one. If you only ever thought about you and what you want all the time, these feelings of going up and down—or down and up— would be much less, and life would only be a question of whether or not you are getting what you want. The fact that you can go from thinking or worrying about yourself to feeling real care and concern for someone else is surely a very good thing—you are not stuck in a rut!
In the church, we talk a lot about heaven and hell, and a lot of the time we think about them as what is there after we die. But we should also think about heaven and hell as part of our life now, while we are still here. “Heaven”—which is obviously the right place to be in—is what we mean when we talk about loving other people, being sincere, being useful, being glad to be who we are, and so on. It is a good state. “Hell,” on the other hand—which is obviously not the best place to be—is what we mean when we talk about feeling bad about things, feeling fearful, complaining, judging people, being miserable, or thinking, “Other people have it easy but I don’t,” and so on. Hell is not a good state. It’s a rotten state.
Now, while we are here on earth, we don’t have the extremes of heaven and hell that may define eternity (although even that is a big question!). What we do have here is a touch of heaven and a touch of hell, a taste of heaven and a taste of hell, in fairly ordinary, normal ways that we can cope with, work through, and eventually sort out. In a way, this experience of encountering both heaven and hell is the whole point of starting our existence in this kind of life before we go on and live for ever.
This is the way the Lord has decided to arrange it for the best outcome. Obviously the Lord wants us to be in heaven, but he can’t make us go there. The decision has to be much more in our court, and we have to come to want to be in heaven by keeping on choosing it. For that to happen, we are provided with these alternations, these changes of state, these ups and downs and downs and ups, on a regular basis, so that bit by bit we become aware of them, aware of how we feel in either of them, and feel that we want more of the one and less of the other. Hopefully it will be more of heaven and less of hell because we start realizing that being someone who complains, criticizes, and judges people not only makes life unpleasant for other people but also makes ourselves unhappy.
Looking at it like that, I would certainly say that the Lord knows exactly what he is doing! Most people in their right minds will soon start waking up to the difference between the two and figure out which one is offering the best deal.
There is another important thing to do with these ups and downs: we know very well from our own experience that they keep on going. We might ask, “Why do they have to do that? Why don’t we just have about a dozen or so ups and downs to help us make our mind up, and after that it’s all decided and it’s plain sailing from then on?”
Well, there are probably a few reasons why they keep going, but I want to start with the idea that variation is simply how life is. We get it a lot in the world out there—we have day and night, summer and winter, clear blue skies and cloudy skies. It seems to be the case that if something stays exactly the same, it is not a good thing. We would be in terrible trouble if it were always sunny, just as we would be building a lot of Noah’s arks if it were always raining! Nature needs changes, and (in the right way) so do we.
For example, if we felt extremely happy all the time, then gradually our sense of what real happiness means would become meaningless. We would have nothing to compare it with. So, part of being happy involves being able to feel or remember a time in the past when we were not so happy. This keeps happiness as something that “comes back” and stays fresh and new each time it returns. Just as importantly, if feeling great is something that keeps coming back, we are all the more likely to appreciate it and to want to give our gratitude to God for bringing us back into it. So, once again, it seems that the Lord really does know exactly what he is doing.
Our church teachings make an interesting point: in eternity—when people have become angels and when they are much more aware of the Lord in their life than we are—even then there is a small up-and-down change in their experience. Sometimes angels are very aware of God; they love God, they serve God, and they turn to God. But sometimes they are not so aware of God in that “full-on” way, and for them it’s like evening or twilight. The reason for this is because, like us, angels are still individual people living their own lives. Perhaps, when they have been serving God in some way, the little thought comes along, “I did that well, didn’t I?” and, just for a while, they are thinking more about themselves than about God. But because they are angels, they spot that loss of focus, and very quickly they remind themselves that all good comes from God, and not from us. And that feels like a new morning.
Life’s undulations of ups and downs is a very common experience, but it pays to know quite a lot of background information about these variations, which is what we’ve been trying to do. If we didn’t know anything, we would keep being plunged into sadness and wonder where our happiness went. Or we would keep breathing a sigh of relief just to feel happy again and wonder why on earth we had to go through “all of that.” Let’s take it as it is and recognize that these ups and downs are actually the Lord’s best way of taking us further on and further up, preparing us very well for the heaven he wants for us all. Amen.
Rev. Julian Duckworth