The agony, ecstasy and in-between of life
When I was in my twenties I read a book called, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’. It was the story of Michelangelo Buonarotti – yes THE Michelangelo! Before reading the book I wondered why such a title. I wasn’t even half way through it, when I understood why such a title.
It’s easy to get stuck in the agony of life, I’ve been there far too many times, as I’m sure you have also experienced. The pain of it all seems to overwhelm any semblance of joy. For this very reason we must resolve never to accommodate it, for to do so would mean to miss out on Life’s ECSTASY.
Life though, includes much more than its agonizing and ecstatic overwhelm. For the major part of our lives we encompass the in between, that which happens between the two extremes of agony and ecstasy. It’s in this in between territory that we constantly live, sometimes nearer to one extreme or the other, depending on what happens to us. When we are closer to the ecstatic, we love it, we lap it up like there’s no tomorrow. When we are closer to the agony, we react to it being convinced that it shouldn’t be so and that it’s not fair.
Somehow we have been convinced that we should always be happy. That happiness is our default living mode and anything other than this is not how it should be. But is this true or have we been led to believe a falsehood? Positive Psychologists tell us real life is not about being in a state of constant happiness. Yet it appears that some health care professionals have also bought into this constant happiness as normality. Last year, someone we’ll call Julia, entered hospital for a straight forward hernia operation. Unfortunately it resulted in complications which led to months of hospitalisation and after care. As you can imagine, at that moment any semblance of happiness went out the window. Her doctor recommended anti depressants. I had to ask why any doctor would recommend anti depressants for what was a natural consequence to the traumatic experience she had experienced. One does not go through what she had endured and come out in a state of ecstasy. It’s normal that she would feel sad, is it not?
Feeing sadness when we experience loss of any kind is not a mental illness that needs to be medicated, it’s a normal reaction that needs understanding, encouragement and support in getting the person back to wellness. Once I was asked if sadness can live with joy. “Yes,” I replied, “sadness can live with joy.” When we suffer the loss of a loved one, we can be sad for some time, a long time. Even if the person was seriously ill and in a great deal of pain with no chance of a recovery, we still feel the sadness. We miss them, we miss their physical presence, we miss the connection. At the same time we can feel joy for having known them, for the closeness, love and experiences we shared. We can at times even smile with joy and cry with sadness simultaneously, it’s the human condition. We have not yet evolved to that state in which we are joyful or happy100% of the time.
We are here, on this planet, to experience every aspect of what makes us human. Love, peace, anger, pain, loss, happiness, joy, and so forth. What we call positive and negative emotions. We were born to feel our way through life, its agony, ecstasy and its in between. We have established then that we cannot be happy 100% of the time. To be so would be just as abnormal as to be unhappy 100% of the time. But this does not mean we cannot move along the continuum, closer and closer to the ecstasy marker. We can. We should. And we must. Positive Psychologist Shawn Achor tells us that ‘happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential” (p40, The Happiness Advantage). In order to keep our ‘in between’ as close as possible to happiness we must continue to strive towards Life’s ecstasy. For you see, it’s in our striving for joy, fulfilment, success and meaning that happiness shares and gives of itself to us.
The next time you have the privilege of standing beneath Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, be sure to thank him for the agony he endured and for his dedicated striving towards his creation, so millions of people like you and I can enjoy its ecstasy.
Please note- Some of you may remember this article from 2016. If so, I hope you enjoy revisiting, as I also hope for those of you reading it for the first time. 🌻