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Finding choices at the bottom of the hill

When I’m in an unfamiliar place, I like to explore on foot. A couple of months ago, while out of town with my son for a band event, I stayed at the home of a friend. The house is situated high up among rolling hills, and because I generally welcome the challenge of a few hills on a run, I put on my running shoes and headed out to get to know the neighborhood.

I ran the main loop of the development, going around several cul-de-sacs in the process, and came upon a road that stretched away from the houses into farmland and then dipped around a corner to the right where it disappeared from view. Following it, I ran along the straightaway until I reached the curve, where I could see that the road began to descend. Figuring that I’d see how far down it went, I kept running.

Well, it went pretty far down, and then dropped even lower, and curved, and then kept heading down ever more steeply, until I wasn’t sure whether it was ever going to flatten out. I knew that with every slope I was setting myself up for a tougher and tougher ascent. I kept thinking, maybe I should turn around. But I didn’t. My descent had taken on a force of its own, and as for the thought of how I would come back up, somehow it wasn’t strong enough to overcome the pull to keep going down.

I reached a STOP sign near the bottom of the hill, but because it wasn’t technically the lowest point of the slope, I couldn’t bring myself to turn around. I passed the intersection and finally paused at the lowest point possible, near a yellow caution sign. With trepidation I turned around to look up at where I had come from, and where I had to go.

Looking up from the bottom

Some believe that people must “hit bottom,” as the saying goes, before they can create their best lives. For a long time I questioned the validity of that belief. Weren’t there people who made substantive changes without having a life-or-death moment? Weren’t there people who led meaningful lives without suffering through an enormous crisis? Couldn’t we avoid hitting bottom, and shouldn’t we try?

I didn’t believe that hitting bottom is an absolute requirement for an enlightened life, and I still don’t. But now, after weathering loss and illness and other shocks over the years, I know that many people experience unimagined and unimaginable crises, jarring blows that send them down toward a pit they never anticipated, and they cannot always stop the momentum.

There was a surprise, though, waiting at the base of this gigantic hill. As I stood and looked up at the looming slope, something shifted in my mind, and I realized: There are choices at the bottom. I couldn’t understand this on the way down, because my thoughts were occupied with the worsening situation. But here at the bottom, in the midst of despair, I discovered options. I could walk up. I could run up. I could continue in the other direction and walk along the highway and see if it led to another way back to the house. I could take a shortcut through the woods. The choice was mine to make.

Getting there, making my way up

Seeing choices led to my making one, which was to run back up. Making the choice led to trying it, and trying it led to continuing to try even though it got harder and harder, and continuing to try led me to get up to the top of that hill, footfall by footfall, windsucking breath by windsucking breath. As I finally found myself running on the flat straight road back to the development, my breath slowed and my heart rate calmed. I returned to the house carrying something new -- the gift of knowing that I could go to the bottom, choose to come back up, and survive the trip. I wouldn’t have found out I could come back all that way unless I had gone all that way down.

Closer, about a third of the way to go

I don’t wish for you to hit bottom. But if you do, carried there by grief or any other adversity, stop for a moment where you have landed and consider your choices. They are probably hard. They may seem impossible. But there they are, and you have the power to choose one and try it. You can run, walk, crawl, inch your way from the bottom up to a place where you gain faith in yourself simply because you made it there. The bottom is where you realize that trips back up are available to you, and as you accomplish a tough trip back -- footfall by footfall, windsucking breath by windsucking breath -- you may discover just how amazing you are.

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