The Strange Comfort of Valleys
2017 was a hot mess for a lot of people. It was politically sticky, socially nauseating and emotionally draining. Strangely enough life at the start of the year was going rather swimmingly, so swimmingly that I was foolishly unaware of the pain that was looming over me. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether you’re climbing a mountain or tumbling into a valley. The sensations are similar; both make your legs hurt. Sometimes when you’re climbing uphill the steepness is overwhelming and when you’re cascading down, it’s hard to maintain balance. I thought I was climbing when actually I was falling and I had been falling for sometime.
At the beginning of Summer 2017 God gave me a picture of a mountain. It was tall and beautiful and mesmerising, covered in lush vegetation and springs. I was excited, finally, it was time to get the heck out of this valley and start climbing some peaks. Around the same time my friends took me kayaking in Loch Lomond just outside Glasgow, which is surrounded by tall green hills. As I paddled through the choppy water, singing Pocahontas at the top of my lungs, I felt euphoric about finally being ‘happy again’. At the same time a very wise woman told me not to hurry out of the valley before it had taught me all it needed to but I felt so claustrophobic and all I could think about was climbing.
At the end of the Summer a friend drew me a picture of a series of mountains and valleys. I took it home and put it on my mantlepiece and stared at it for a long time. It dawned on me that perhaps the initial climb out of the valley required strength that I didn’t quite have yet. I learned to yield to the valley’s demands of rest and reflection. It was painful. It was hard to stop, to let go and to trust that if I took this time to dig deep, I wouldn’t be missing out on what was going on around me. Valleys are resting places, they are slow and meandering and sometimes there is more than one. There are valleys with deep ravines and dark woods but there are also valleys with thriving communities and bubbling creeks. One makes us face the darkness head on and the other challenges our need to be in control. They can be lonely places but we will stay in them longer than we should if we do not accept the help of those who offer to guide us through. My impulse was to bolt out of the lowland in search of the quickest high I could find. Thankfully I had friends and mentors who confronted me and quite often literally made me sit and be still. I slept, I cried, I read novels, I swam in Hampstead Ladies pond and prayed. I filled a bookcase, put up pictures, bought new bedding and wrote. I went back into customer service and let the slow rhythms of making coffee and waiting tables heal me with it’s routine. I stumbled on a beautiful church community that was working through the book of Philippians, focussing on finding joy in tough circumstances. I harvested that valley for all that it could give me.
You see, I thought highs and lows directly correlated to my outward circumstances; my life has been peppered with grief, anxiety, disability, sickness and heartache. I understood those valleys, they made sense. I was furious with myself for feeling so low, when everything had seemed so perfect. However, I had put my comfort in flimsy promises and I had rushed out of previous valley seasons before my heart had fully healed. I was building my life on sand, the storm came and everything I had built disintegrated.
But learning that joy is not circumstantial released me from the fear of the valley. I stopped resenting the slower pace and instead of feeling claustrophobic I started to feel comforted. In a strange way, I’m sure in this next season of climbing, I will miss it.