Life is a Journey not a Rollercoaster Ride

Author: Jackie Joens

In the movie, Parenthood, there is a scene where Steve Martin’s and Mary Steenburgen’s characters are discussing the difficulties and challenges of parenthood and life. Martin is frustrated and expressing his desire for some control and guarantees in life. Steenburgen states, “Life is messy.” Martin replies, “I hate messy!” It is just about at this moment that Steenburgen’s grandmother (who is apparently suffering from some form of dementia) enters the room and shares a story.

Grandma explains, “You know, when I was young, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up and down, up, down. Oh, what a ride. I always wanted to go again. It was just interesting to me that a ride could make me so scared, so sick, so excited...and so thrilled all together. Some didn´t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”

I have always thought that to be a poignant moment in the movie. A lesson in reality which clearly illustrates that there are some things in our lives that occur no matter what we do. It is a scene that reminds us that sometimes, in spite of our best efforts or intentions, life keeps rolling along…up and down.

If we carefully process, we can see that grandma’s lesson was more about how we perceive the ride of life rather than the ride itself. Are we focused on the “thrills” that present themselves or are we more focused on the need for predictability and the control that the merry-go-round provides? Grandma’s story illustrates how sometimes things in life happen that we have no control over, but there will always be another corner, another hill to climb or descend…life goes on. As Scarlet O’Hara proclaimed in Gone With the Wind, “Tomorrow is another day!”

When I first saw these movies (back in my younger, more innocent and less skeptical days) I found a sense of comfort in these scenes. I embraced the idea that I wasn’t alone on this rollercoaster ride of life. There were others experiencing similar frustrations, uncertainties, struggles and the uphill climb of life. There was always tomorrow’s promise of the possibility of wonderful life events that were thrilling, exciting, exuberating and I just needed to hold on as I rode time on the downhill, easy side of the slope. The metaphor seemed to fit. It made sense to a young woman living in a new world of adultness; with the corresponding responsibilities, challenges, and life encounters.

Then something changed…life happened. As I got older and experienced more of the complexities of living, I came to an astonishing conclusion. I wasn’t a just a passenger on what I thought was this rollercoaster ride. Decisions I pondered, choices I made, directions I moved all were within my control. I had a lot more power in how my ride of life flowed than what the rollercoaster analogy allowed. I wasn’t just buckled in to a safety seat, waiting for the next incident to occur. I wasn’t a “passenger” on a ride of each day, waiting to see if tomorrow would bring up hill battles or an exciting ride down hill. I was making decisions each and everyday on what direction to proceed on my journey.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know there are many things that happen through the years over which I (or we) don’t have any control. I can’t control the one hour wait in the security check point line at the airport. There was absolutely nothing I could do to keep my grandmother from having a stroke or my son from tearing his ACL. I couldn’t stop the horrific events of 9/11. I can’t change the laws and allow for a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia to be held longer than the mandatory 72 hours for psychiatric evaluation and medication. I cannot change the weather patterns, climate cycles, economic conditions, the horrors of war, the devastation of natural disasters, or the murder of innocent people. There is far too much that occurs in life that makes no sense and for which I hold no answers. These events happen and there is sometimes a lot of pain associated with them. There is evil in the world that remains unexplained and is sometimes very frightening.

As difficult as these struggles can be (and they are) I choose to do more than just ride the ride of life. I choose not to become just a passenger – “a victim.” I do not believe that these events just happen as part of the ride and I that I have no power in these situations other than to watch them occur as I am carried on the uphill climb. No, I rather take a proactive roll in my voyage.

Instead of a rollercoaster ride, I think that a better metaphor for life is a “journey.” “Journey” is defined as something suggesting travel or passage from one place to another. As we move forward from one day to the next (by definition) we are met with challenges of one sort or another. Some are quite pleasant and exciting and others are difficult and more of a struggle. All of these challenges are part of the journey – my journey - your journey - we must go through them. It is how we handle them, or (in other words) choose to traverse the path of our journey that helps us map out our individual directions and experiences.

We can make choices as to how to deal with our unruly coworker, cranky neighbor, negative in-laws, news of illness, pain of injury, realization of spousal infidelity, announcement of deadlines, or news of national tragedies. These things happen and people enter and exit our lives on a regular basis, directly or indirectly. Instead of sitting back believing to be powerless, we can accept the challenge of learning from the experience. What will we do with the new information? What lesson(s) are we taking away from the exchange? Do we choose to grow from the situation or become a passenger – a victim, helplessly riding along?

The point is that making choices is what life is all about. Even the choice to not choose is taking a position. Here, your pronouncement is that you don’t want to do anything or decide anything. Make no mistake about it though, it is still a choice. We are constantly challenged to choose how we are going to meet each challenge and what lessons we will take away from the experience. If we choose to be a victim to life’s circumstances - riding the ride - then we will live each day with a victim-way of thinking. We will wait for life to happen to us, rather than embracing the lessons that could enrich our future selves, relationships, encounters, or experiences.

Take a moment and reflect on where you are today and what direction you are choosing for your life. Are you riding a merry-go-round, repeating old mistakes or unhealthy behaviors? Is your ride more like the ups and downs of a rollercoaster, sitting back and holding on for dear life? Or, are you embracing the challenges (ups and downs) of each and every day by choosing to evaluate and learn from life’s lessons? These lessons (if you are open) can help you navigate your journey in a much more enriched and satisfying way. Embrace your lessons and grow with your experiences. Fill your journey with the promise of a new day – a new more fulfilling direction to your life.

If you find you are in the midst of this struggle, coaching and/or counseling can help you sort out the details of the lessons presented. By searching for and then learning from lessons, life experiences become less painful and much more manageable. Just think… they may even become rich with previously hidden blessings – gifts to enrich the future!