Hold on loosely
A few weeks ago, I participated in a fascinating conversation about financial markets. Such topics are not usually my domain, but a friend and I happened to be speaking with a very successful business guru when the topic of market bubbles came up. After discussing the 2008 housing crisis and 2001 ‘dot-com’ bubble, we ventured in to the subject of the current market valuation. “Do you think we are in another bubble?” my friend asked. The businessman raised an eyebrow and replied: “Let me ask you a question, do you believe in gravity?”
What goes up must come down says the law of gravity. As it relates to housing prices, financial markets, or income this may or may not be true depending on a myriad of economic factors from inflation to timing. But as it relates to every material organism on the planet, it’s most definitely true – the law of gravity reigns supreme.
Yet the cultural norm in our way of thinking is that success is predicated on the concept of infinite growth. The metaphor for growth, progress, and the American way is climbing the ladder. The problem with the ladder is that it suggests an end point (someday you’ll reach the top) and that the trajectory of advancement and success works in one direction (up).
Conversely the metaphor of spiritual growth is the circle. The circle suggests that instead of constant movement up or forward, real growth happens in a cycle of ebb and flow. In that cycle faith and progress is forged through failure, humility, and openness.
When we are climbing the ladder, our hands are clutched on the rungs holding on for dear life. The irony is that by holding on tightly to success, we inhibit real growth which ultimately comes about through the act of falling. It’s a catch 22 - true growth happens through falling, yet everything and everyone is telling you to hold on to that damn ladder at all costs. Being on the ladder suggests we’re in control. As long as we’re climbing, we present the picture to the world that we’re happy, successful, and content.
When I fell in love with fitness as a young adult, the truth is that it wasn’t as much love as I fell in lust with control. While I couldn’t control my height, my athletic prowess, or how pronounced my jawline was, I could control my fitness level. I refused to let anything or anyone get in the way of my workouts and the quest for perfection. 25 years later as a middle-aged man, I have come to realize that control is a myth.
Gravity catches up with us all. After learning to climb the ladder for most of my life, in recent years I’ve had to learn to let go. Injuries and health issues have taught me that my body is not indestructible and failures have taught me that my willpower is not infallible. Despite my efforts to continuously get stronger or faster, I’m not as strong in my 40’s as I was in my 20’s. Work ethic, knowledge, and willpower have been welcome companions in my fitness (not to mention my relationships, career, and hobbies) but they ultimately don’t serve me as much as the willingness to let go.
The fallacy of control is everywhere you look – Botox makes you look younger, money makes you happier, and status validates who you are. We define ourselves by our wealth, titles, bodies or possessions. My Grandfather used to refer to this as the fur-lined trap. That is, putting your eggs in the infinite growth basket sets you up for a big fall. If you merely define yourself by climbing the ladder and the possessions you acquire along the way, what happens when those things diminish, deteriorate, or simply vanish?
When you’re living in a failed relationship, participating in a miserable job, engaged in an unsustainable diet or fad exercise program…that, my friends, is a bubble. It’s only a matter of time before gravity takes over.
What’s interesting to note is that when a market crashes and a bubble bursts, they don’t call it a tragedy or a misfortune, but a ‘correction.’ Most of us would agree that correcting something is a good thing. But rarely if ever do we refer to being downsized, injured, or divorced as a correction. As a survivor of all three of these scenarios, I am here to corroborate that a correction is indeed a positive in the long run.
Arguably two of your greatest possessions in life are health and wealth. In an effort to build these cornerstones of success, many of us spend countless waking hours grinding away at work climbing the ladder figuratively and/or at the gym climbing the ladder literally. Granted, not all ladder climbing aspects are necessarily bad. A solid work ethic is a good thing and having a plan for the present and future is to be self-aware and responsible. But to hoard our possessions, be consumed with worry and anxiety, and to lust for control is to be self-absorbed, short-sided, and arrogant.
It’s right to work hard and have a plan. It’s right to live within a budget to save. It’s right to exercise and express health. But 'you can’t take it with you' the old saying goes. Real growth is only possible through concepts that are refined in the circle of life – qualities like wisdom, grace, purpose, creativity, and unconditional love. Learning to let go opens up the door for the expression of our authentic selves and genuine nature. If we really aspire to reach our potential we must hold on to the ladder, but loosely.