People often say that life is a roller coaster: sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down. I never particularly liked roller coasters. I remember the first time I went on one. My experience was made up of moments of dread and moments of terror. The only bright moment was when I stepped away from the car and swore I will never go on one again.
It seems to me that people get on roller coasters because they like the “high” that they get from the ride. Roller coaster passengers get that feeling of “high” because of the swift changes in height difference (apparently those changes produce some kind of hormone in the brain that makes us feel more alive) and the illusion of danger. The downs, or anticipation of the thrill, are as important as the ups, or the thrill itself. The only real “down” moment of the ride is when it ends. Unless, like me, you’ve been praying for it.
I think perhaps people use the roller-coaster-is-life metaphor because we wish that life was like that, the ride of a lifetime kind of metaphor. Just imagine! What if life was not a pan full of drudgery intermixed with a spattering of pleasure? What if it really was one unbroken stream of aliveness and joy?
On Saturday, we went for a bicycle ride in Monterey. I had been looking forward to this trip. We chose a section of the coastal trail, a trail that meanders parallel to Highway 1. I liked the idea of going on a bike path that is not near the road when biking with the children.
While driving down, we encountered traffic as we hit Gilroy. For over two hours, we crawled like decrepit, aged snails till we finally reached Monterey. By then, my irritation and stress levels rocketed. The children complained incessantly, and the thought “why are we here” kept running through my mind. Once we got on the bikes, however, my mood lifted. This was exactly like my fantasy! We were riding down the path: Dar in front, the children following, and me bringing up the rear. It felt, quite simply, like a family. I was full of joy and life.
One mile later, we hit a road. The bike trail had disappeared, and a sign pointed us to follow the road down a hill. There was a narrow sidewalk and no designated path for bikes. The road led us to a Costco parking lot, and my irritation and stress began to return. The children went back to complaining. “Why are we here?” They mirrored the thoughts in my mind. “This is boring.” And they were right. I had not driven over two hours to ride through a Costco parking lot! I did not sign up for this mess.
Past the parking lot, however, the trail continued past gorgeous sand dunes with views of the ocean beyond. The dunes were covered with vegetation. Flowers and low bushes intermixed with sections of pristine sand. The children got off the bikes and, taking their shoes off, began to run up and down the dunes. Dar and I hesitated one moment and ran up too.
On the way back, we passed through the Costco parking lot, and I wondered at my irritation earlier. Such a short section in the midst of so much beauty. Why had I been so stressed?
I had expected our bike ride to be one unbroken, daylong bout of pleasure, but during our ride, I realized that for me to enjoy our trip meant that I needed to recognize and give attention to little moments of fun. Life lights our path with flashes of joy. On Saturday I managed to let go of my thrilling roller-coaster expectations and enjoy the moments. And those moments made my entire day shine.