One year my wife, Susan, and I concluded a visit to Yellowstone by heading out via Beartooth Pass. It might have been the most terrifying drive of our married life.
The highway is a steep incline from the northeast corner of the national park into Montana. Jagged ridges surround you, and the name of the pass immediately makes sense. Many times one side of the road is a sheer cliff wall, the other side a vertical drop hundreds of feet to the rocks below.
The two-lane highway is a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns. A white-knuckler. Though Susan and I are both mountain lovers, we said almost nothing to each other on this stretch. Only the occasional "Whoa!" or "This is unbelievable!" were heard as our car labored upward, hugging the double yellow line, unless a semi coming the other way forced us closer to the edge.
When we reached the top of the pass, I could finally relax and look around. I discovered my hands were sore from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. But what a view! Beartooth Pass had not devoured us. From the top of the pass, the magnificence of the 360-degree view of the sharp-edged skyline made the terror of the ascent worthwhile.
Many of us, in marriage, long for mountaintop moments. Those times of shared success, satisfaction, and celebration. Times when the nail-biting drive of daily life is behind us for a while and forgotten, and all we can think about is the happiness of the moment.
A honeymoon can be that kind of experience: the rush of shared sex, the joy of loving someone and being loved in return, the bright hopes for years of happiness together.
The birth of a child can be a mountaintop: the wonder of little eyes opening for the first time, the sacred squall of a newborn's first cry, the way an infant can bring parents and in-laws together.
A dream vacation can be a mountaintop: time to relax and enjoy each other and a beautiful place, without worries, without work.
It's tempting to think of married life as a continual climb, looking for the next mountaintop. We may tell ourselves that most of life is lived in the valleys, but we hope we're on the road to another mountaintop experience, and that we'll get there before too long.
Or, after too many years on the switchbacks, we can lose hope that we'll ever see another mountaintop. Some couples sink into dreary stagnation: "Our marriage is what it is. Not bad enough to end, but we're not finding any mountaintops."
But is marriage best seen as a series of mountaintop and valley experiences? Mountaintops that never last long enough, and valleys that seem endless?
"Why does life have to be a series of ups and downs?" one young woman put it. "Why can't I just go from one mountaintop to another, from one up to an upper up?"
I understand her attitude, and I've shared it. The only difference is that I told myself, "I'm realistic enough to know you have to go down before you can go up again." But I still kept looking for the peak experiences, even if
I was willing to wait a bit.
But what if peaks and valleys aren't the best way to describe your married life? What if God didn't intend us just to endure down times so we could enjoy an occasional up?
A side-by-side view Rick Warren, pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, made an observation a couple years ago that seems to describe the terrain of marriage. In a single year, his book reached the top of the best-seller lists and his wife was diagnosed with cancer. A mountaintop? A deep valley? Or something else?
"This past year has been the greatest year of my life," wrote Rick, "but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys—you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth.
"I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life."
For a train to make progress, it's always in contact with both rails. Life rides parallel rails of blessing and adversity.
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," writes David in Psalm 23, "I will fear no evil, for you are with me." This songwriter of the Bible is describing a comfort and relationship that emerges only in the difficult times. In fact, the closeness of that relationship develops in the difficult times.
Likewise, as a marriage matures, we begin to notice that joy and difficulty aren't either/or. They coexist constantly.
"No matter how good things are in your life," writes Warren, "there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for."
SO maybe the purpose of marriage isn't about always looking for the next mountaintop.
Joy and difficulty are an odd combination, but much of life is lived seeking one and avoiding the other. I used to think they came one at a time, like alternating currents. Now I realize they're both present, all the time.
I'm developing eyes to see both simultaneously.
A peaceful coexistence On our honeymoon, Susan and I chose the wrong day to spend at Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida. Shortly after we paid our admission and entered the park, a tropical storm moved in and dumped more than four inches of rain on us.
Within minutes we were soaked. Normally, the idea of spending several hours in sopping wet pants, shirts plastered to our skin, and shoes squishing water with each step, is not my idea of a good time. It could have been a miserable day.
But I was with the woman I loved, and she was with me! We took photos of each other splashing through puddles with our stringy hair arranged in crazy 'dos. That was the first time in our marriage that I realized joy and difficulty could coexist. But it wasn't the last.
In fact, it was such moments of conjoined blessing and adversity that prepared us for more challenging times. When we gave birth to a daughter, Mandy, who was severely and profoundly retarded, whose condition made her unable to sit up, hold her head erect, or use her hands to grasp, we were again put to the test to see if joy could coexist with adversity.
One night I sat in a hospital emergency room, where we'd been forced to take Mandy after an extended seizure. I couldn't make sense of the extent of Mandy's suffering.
I thought, I never realized someone could suffer so much.
When she died within two weeks of her second birthday, I didn't think I'd ever be totally happy again. The depth of grief was indelible. I would never forget her difficult and way-too-brief life with us.
But as Susan and I experienced the help and kindness of Christian friends, we learned that joy was still there. We knew moments of joy even in the midst of the pain. We were deeply grateful, for instance, for Sarah, a respite worker the state provided to help care for Mandy. She became a dear friend, and we stayed in close contact even after Mandy's death. Now, years later, Sarah is helping plan the wedding of our oldest daughter. It's not a carefree mountaintop experience, because we recognize the grief from which it came, but it is most definitely joy.
As Rick Warren said: "No matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ-likeness.
"You can focus on your purposes, or you can focus on your problems. If you focus on your problems, you're going into self-centeredness, which is 'my problem, my issues, my pain.' But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others."
I'm glad that life isn't just mountaintops and valleys, but that both joy and adversity are with us always.
Marshall Shelley, executive editor of MP and editor of Leadership, is coauthor of Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan). He and Susan have been married 23 years.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.