Did you know that the highest point in the contiguous United States is only about 120 miles from the lowest point? Mount Whitney towers over the Sierras at a whopping windswept 14,508 feet, and only a two hour drive away lies Death Valley at a sweltering -282 feet. Yes, that is a negative sign. Death Valley is actually below sea level.
Highs and lows are inevitable, in fact they can be quite close by
In the past year my husband and I had the good fortune to have visited both places. And of course, I couldn’t help but think about resilience. He did too. He said that when he was standing on the top of Mount Whitney, looking down into Death Valley, he saw a metaphor for life. He thought about how tremendously hard he had worked to get to the top. He was celebrating his success by sharing a beer with his late father who had hiked Mount Whitney before my husband was even born, before he got sick. And that immediately reminded him that even in the highs of success and achievement, the lows that are inevitable in life are there, and they can be quite close by.
As we chatted about this later in Death Valley, I started to think about the similarities in the environment of the lowest and highest point in the USA and the type of life that you find there. The metaphor sprang back to mind, and immediately Kyle and I started talking about what this can teach us about resilience in our own life, and how we can use this metaphor to help our patients.
Allow me to paint a picture for you.
Mount Whitney is reached by an arduous 11.5 mile hike, all uphill. You start out in a relatively dense forest with lots of species of trees, flowers, and animals. There are beautiful mountain lakes and cascading waterfalls. The smells of relatively untouched wilderness are intoxicating. You can stop and take a rest or eat a quick bite of food in the shade of a large tree and imagine the early Spanish explorers having rested in the same spot because this forest is hundreds of years old. You will see lots of cute little mice with big round ears and short tails, trail chickens, and if you start early enough you might even encounter some deer who seem to want to join you for your hike.
As you continue to climb higher and higher the forest thins out until eventually you cross treeline and almost all plant and animal life disappears. You have now entered a harsh otherworldly landscape punctuated by jagged rocks, steep dropoffs, and wind blasted topography. It is no place for the soft or for the meek. There is life up at this altitude, but only the most hardy of animals can survive. There is nothing overhead to protect you from the sun. The only relief you get from the elements is the shirt on your back and the hat on your head. The last animals you will see are the marmots that fatten themselves up by begging from the hikers at trail camp. The further up the mountain you ascend the less life you see aside from barren rock and sun bleached dirt.
Death Valley, on the other hand, starts out pretty barren to begin with. It is in a desert, so this may not be terribly surprising to some. But if you know where and when to look life is abundant in the desert. There are plants adapted specifically to handle harsh winds and low waterfall. The animals are mostly nocturnal and flourish in this arid habitat. Death Valley is more accessible to the less hardy among us – you can actually drive right up to the lowest place in the US. As travelers make their way through the park, they will see that they lower they get in elevation, the fewer plants and animals there are. When finally reach the valley floor you see that there’s no life, no water and only sun scorched salt jagged salt formations.
Life and resilience is abundant if you know where to look
The main point-
It is hard for any life to exist in the extremes
There is a point within the Death Valley National Park, Dante’s Peak, that allows you to see both Mount Whitney and the floor of Death Valley at the same time. From this place it makes it very easy to see resilience in action if you are looking for it. Or at the very least, to see the metaphor for resilience and how that might apply to your life.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges and go on to flourish and thrive. States that are more moderate allow for more ease in resilience. The top of Mount Whitney and the bottom of Death Valley are so harsh that just living there is a balancing act on the knife edge of survival. However the vast temperate pine forest that occupies the space in between is a lush habitat where plants and animals can thrive and resilience is easy.
There is resilience in extremes
There is still resilience in the extremes, but only for those who are very specifically adapted to those environments. The lizards on the floor of Death Valley wouldn’t thrive in the forests or foothills around Mount Whitney, and definitely not at its peak where temperatures are so low that cold blooded animals can’t survive. Similarly, the high altitude Marmots that live near the peak of Mount Whitney are evolved to compensate for low air pressure and significantly less available oxygen. Living at low altitude would give them a brain aneurysm. Living in extreme environments is much more difficult and in these environments we have much less diversity as a result.
How does this apply to life?
To me, it is a reminder, for both me and for my patients, to be careful as we tiptoe toward extremes. Moderation is such a challenge for many, myself included, that it almost feels like a 4-letter word. But it is in moderation that most of us flourish and allow diversity into our lives. When we live in the extremes (think all work or all play, ultra strict diets or eating whatever is easy and tastes good, exercising for hours every day or getting our exercise by lifting a remote control) we don’t leave room for much diversity in our life. Having more diversity in life allows for resilience to be much easier to obtain.
The most resilient life requires the ability to balance (remember, we use balance as a verb, not a noun) work, relationships, play, health, and spirituality. It requires diversity and moderation to support all of these areas.
I probably know better than anyone else that sometimes you have to head into one extreme or another to get something done for work or to jump start a new lifestyle or health strategy. Just like we can visit Death Valley or Mount Whitney for a short period, we can jump to extremes in behavior. But we can’t stay in the extremes for long without significant risks to our health, happiness, and resilience.
Sometimes we get thrust into extremes
There are, of course, conditions that thrust us into extremes in spite of our best efforts. Bipolar disorder is an excellent example where people are sent alternatively very high or very low in response to changes in brain chemistry and environmental triggers. In these physiologic states, it is even more important to be mindful of staying in the metaphorical forest in our daily lives, especially while we undergo treatment, but also after. During treatment, focusing on moderation gives your body greater ability to respond to the therapy and heal. During remission, moderation can keep you stable and prevent spikes into mania or depression.
To learn more about the treatment methods that can help improve your physiologic and biochemical resilience, click here. To get updates on tools you can use to create a resilient environment and lifestyle, follow us on twitter and subscribe to our newsletter.
And above all else, pay attention to your metaphorical forest. Take some time every day to tend to its diversity.
Dr. Jennifer Bahr ND
Founder and CMO