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Andrew W.K. on Life's Ups and Downs

Very intense, uncomfortably strange inner sensations can be experienced as joyous and delightful.

Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

It started at an early age.

My mom and I would go out into the yard, and she'd grab me by my wrists and spin me around in a big circle. Sometimes she'd spin me in an office chair. Other times, just on my feet—twirling me around and around until I was disoriented. She'd use any way to get me dizzy and off balance, really. It was something we did quite often, and for seemingly no reason. When I'd stop spinning, my mom would make me concentrate. "Do you feel that funny feeling, the butterflies in your stomach?" she'd ask. "That's a fun feeling! That feels good!" she'd assure me.

At that age—around 4 or 5—you really listen to your parents, and trust that what they're telling you is the truth. My mom was my rock, so I had no reason to believe what she was telling me was false.

A few years later, once I was tall enough, she and I started going on rides at carnivals and amusement parks—she just couldn't wait to have someone to finally share these rides with. It occurred to me then that she had sort of raised me to be her riding partner. That's what all the spinning had been about. She had been getting me acclimated to this woozy sensation all along, trying to get me to appreciate the typical associations I'd eventually feel when going on a scary or unnerving amusement park ride. Seeing my mom next to me on a roller coaster smiling and laughing so hard she was crying really helped drive home that this was genuinely fun, and that those feelings actually were positive. I've been a roller coaster enthusiast ever since!

My dad thought we were crazy. He didn't like rides. He thought getting on a roller coaster was almost the same thing as intentionally getting into a car accident. He couldn't wrap his mind around why we'd want to willingly strap ourselves into what seemed to him like a medieval torture device. Many of my mom's friends felt the same way. Many of mine did, too.

It dawned on me: Maybe they had never been taught, as I had, that the feeling of being turned upside down and round and round was a thrill, something fun. They'd not been as fortunate as I had been to have someone help calibrate them in this way. I had just been lucky enough to be taught that these inner sensations I thought were very intense and even uncomfortably strange could actually be experienced as something joyous and delightful. It just took the proper orientation toward how I interpreted them. It made me think about what other intense, overwhelming, and uncomfortable sensations I could learn to reinterpret.

Into adulthood and throughout my life, I've attempted to reorient myself toward the spectrum of emotional sensations inside. Feelings otherwise thought of as bad, I've tried to embrace as part of a giant, super long-lasting roller coaster. Because life, as comedian and philosopher Bill Hicks once famously said, is just a ride. It may sound trite or obvious, but the analogy is worn out because it's so perfect. Just as a roller coaster is a series of up and down, and is filled with many twists and turns, so too is life. And what we consider the scary parts of a ride—the loops, the downs, the turns, the dizziness—can actually thrill us and make life more dynamic and interesting. We can learn to appreciate these challenging emotional sensations, or at least not waste so much energy on resenting them or desperately avoiding them.

Every part of life's rich experience counts, and we are robbing ourselves when we don't seek to extract something valuable from the full spectrum of our experiences, even those that don't register as feeling great. We are often told that many natural shades of emotion—sadness, anxiety, melancholy—are "not good" by the abstract pressures of society, that we're meant to be happy-go-lucky 24 hours a day. We are often encouraged to overcome our darker feelings, or conquer them, or escape them, or vanquish them like we would a horrible monster.

But more and more, it occurs to me that maybe these emotional sensations are not there to be overcome, eliminated, or numbed out, but appreciated. (I should note here that I'm not talking about pure suffering, deep depression, terrible atrocities, or debilitating trauma, but the everyday doubts that holds us back.) I've tried to harness them or use them as fuel. We can reinterpret these "bad" feelings and use our imagination to find some value in them, let them teach us about ourselves and the world.

I'm more or less convinced my dad actually feels the same waves in his stomach I do when on a roller coaster, he was just never taught that this intestines-in-your-throat experience was fun. Just like spicy food is spicy to everyone, but some learn to enjoy and revel in the burn. It's never too late to go through a rigorous process of reinterpreting challenging feelings or sensations.

Because the truth is, no matter how much we try to contain or eliminate adversity in life, we will always be faced with challenges. Our quest is to master how we go through these moments of difficulty and discomfort. The more we can practice the art of appreciating a wide range of inner experiences and shades of emotion in low-intensity circumstances, the better we will fair when life flings us head first into uncharted territory, when an unanticipated drop comes and we feel like we may lose it.

It's the day-to-day moments of life that allow us to test ourselves in small and manageable ways, so that when we face the biggest tests of all, we will have some sense that it is just part of the roller coaster of life. Being alive is going to be intense. No matter how much we try to smooth it out, the more we can take on the ups and downs with courage and even joy, the more worthy we are of a meaningful and fulfilling ride.

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