Lessons in the Anticlimactic
On the night of my graduation from high school, I remember thinking that it was perhaps one of the most anti-climactic things I'd experienced in my short life.
For all of my high school years, I looked forward to the day when I would leave behind the fundamentalist Christian school where I often felt imprisoned, never looking back as I rode off into the sunset.
My graduating class was small, not even twenty people. As we all gathered after the ceremony in the church's fellowship hall, I said to them, "I'm never going to see some of you again after this."
It was a downer thing to admit, but it was true. I eventually married the only person I still have contact with from my class.
I have had many more anticlimactic moments in the thirty-eight years since that night. Degrees have been attained, goals reached, promotions granted, you name it.
And almost every time, I felt a twinge afterward, as I thought, "Now what?"
The other day, I was reading a lecture written by the 19th-century psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher Henry James. He was speaking about what causes "melancholy," which was a 19th-century term for depression or malaise:
The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void. Not the Jews of captivity, but those of the days of Solomon's glory are those from whom the pessimistic utterances in our Bible come.
So many things got me thinking as I read this quote. James refers to "repletion" as the "sovereign source" of melancholy, which is pretty bold.
He means that when we strive toward something and achieve it, the repletion of that goal hardly brings the satisfaction that striving for it did. We find joy in the struggle, even though we might hold the goal up as the reason for it.
I also found it fascinating how James brought in an analogy from the Hebrew Scriptures, which would have been easily grasped by anyone listening at the time. Biblical literacy was much higher in the 19th century.
What James means here is that the most pessimistic views, rejection of God's laws, and the lessons of Scripture by the Hebrew people in the Bible occurred when Solomon was king, at the height of ancient Israel's importance and influence.
He intimates that there was less griping and discontent and more faithfulness during the Babylonian captivity when the Hebrew people were in exile in a foreign land after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Historically, there is an argument that James' allusion here is inaccurate, but you have to understand that he is using it for literary effect.
To his point, we feel hollow when we achieve all we thought we wanted, acquire all the wealth we thought we could wish to, and move past need and stop struggling and striving.
This is why peace in our world is so fleeting. We say that we long for it; we might even be willing to fight for it. But when we attain it, it doesn't take long for us to find another war to fight or another battle to win.
Here's the thing, James wasn't advocating for not striving for the good or trying to better ourselves as human beings. In fact, that's what he believed we ought to be doing.
But he highlights an essential truth about how character and determination are formed and shaped through "need and struggle." More than the mountaintop moment, these companions push us farther and motivate and inspire us.
If we surrender to God's purposes while on our journey, we will discover a kind of peace and contentment that is hard to explain, even while we are finding difficulty.
As Miley Cyrus wisely sang once, "It's the climb." Yes, I used a Miley Cyrus quote.
We might reach the top of a mountain, but what do we usually see when we get there? More mountains, most likely, or a wide valley that needs to be crossed.
This shouldn't cause us to despair, dear friends.
Instead, it should cause us to rejoice because it means that the greatest learning, the most intense intimacy with God, and the growth we will experience are all ahead of us in the journey.
We might stay and enjoy the view for a bit, but we have to move on at some point. There are more mountains to climb and more lessons to be learned as we climb them.
May you find the strength and the confidence to find peace in your spiritual journey as you grow in faith.
And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.