I had a bad day last week.
I woke up with a familiar, though recently absent, feeling of anxiety simultaneously sitting in my stomach and resting on my shoulders. I was disappointed, not only that it was happening but that I had somehow let it.
I set out to complete my morning routine; journaling, prayer, scripture reading, mindfulness meditation, and a good cup of coffee. Each a part of a long list of non-negotiables I’ve come to hold myself to. Things that aren’t up for internal argument because I’ve found them to be too important.
This routine usually takes place in the early hours of the morning, when I’m all by myself. However, this morning, our one-year-old terrier decided she would also like to be a morning person. I gave her a bowl of food and sat down to begin journaling. Rather than taking her usual comfy spot on the couch after eating, and apparently being driven by some unseen demon, she proceeded to go door to door in our house and attempt to wake up our children. I couldn’t let this happen. My routine!
So I gave up on journaling for the time being and resolved to keep the dog occupied long enough for her to grow tired, then I would do what I could to salvage the rest of my morning. It was a total bust. She remained restless, and kept up the energy until the first sounds of a waking family came drifting down the hallway.
She was ready for playtime, and that meant the end of my time. Forget the journaling, etc… I barely managed the good cup of coffee. Then I felt mad, and then I felt embarrassed for being mad, and then I felt guilty.
Dogs happen. I should have reset my expectations, but instead, I settled into my disappointment. An attitude which manifested itself in subtle ways for the rest of the day. I was short with my family. Had trouble staying present at work. That anxious feeling that had greeted me in the morning continued to grow and grow.
The guilt over my response devolved into a sulky and low mood. Rather than chalk it up to a bad day, I did what I think we’re all prone to do. I took account of the day’s events, my reaction to those events, and cast my judgement. The progress I had made in the last year was a figment of my imagination. Nothing had changed. I was back to square one.
And that’s the way we often view progress. We expect to see constant and relentless growth, completely devoid of pitfalls and setbacks. When the growth line drops a notch, it feels like it’s dropped all the way back to the same place where it started.
It’s because we’ve bought into the myth of linear progress, and I have to remind myself that it is indeed, a myth. An ideal state that exists in fairy-tales but not here in the real world. The idea that we’re getting better and better all the time, and that if we’re not, then we’re just as bad as when we first started.
Progress should never, ever, ever be measured in days or weeks, but measured in whatever the largest stretch of time is that’s available to you. Years are good. Lifetimes are better.
Last Wednesday I was kicking myself for being worse than I was the day before, but what would it have looked like if I had compared that Wednesday to a year ago the same day? Unmedicated, paranoid, emotionally distant, etc… Wednesday doesn’t look so bad now.
When you’re riding the ski lift of growth and healing and you feel the cable slip and the vehicle slide back, take a long look over your shoulder. If you do, you’re like to find that the base of the mountain is still reaaaally far away.
Growth isn’t linear. It’s a bumpy ride, with bad days and sub-optimal weeks. It encompasses days of depression, and periods of anxiety, in addition to a swath of other symptoms. In order to view these moments rightly we need to see them in the context of an overwhelmingly positive narrative in the pages of our uncharted chapter.
That is, if growth is your aim. You’re not going to get better if you’re not trying. If you’re just settled into the fixed mindset that any attempt at progress is going to just delay the inevitable crash back to the bottom. If that’s you today, then make the commitment that this year you’re going to take some small steps towards healing. Know that you’re going to trip from time to time and take an inevitable slid back, but you’re never, ever, going to back to zero.