Psychologists study a phenomenon called “disregard of regression toward the mean.” This is our tendency to expect that extreme performance will continue. It’s a common mistake.
I’ve had a string of good days lately. Writing comes easily, ideas flow, I’ve had a lot of fun with my family and friends. I feel great. Meanwhile, my favorite baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, has been struggling. They’ve dropped series to the Mets, the Braves, and the Twins. They’re not hitting and the pitching is miserable. I think my good days will continue, and I expect the Tigers to keep losing.
But of course thing will change. Soon my work will turn into labor, it will rain on my Saturday cookout, and I’ll feel gloomy. Soon the Tigers will get some three-run homers, a shutout from their rookie starter, and great catches instead of errors. They may not make the playoffs, but they’ll play better than they’re playing now. My moods and the Tigers’ play will regress toward a mean.
Ignatius understood all this. His rules for the discernment of spirits tell us to be patient in times of desolation. Consolation is on its way. We’re also to be wise in times of consolation, and prepare for the desolation that will eventually come.
The trick, I think, is to move the mean. Spiritual growth isn’t a matter of having more frequent and more intense spiritual highs. It’s a matter of balance and steadiness, of making progress. It’s easier to do this when we remember that the current slump or winning streak won’t last.
What a good reminder that the extremes of life are only points in time–that fearing the negative extremes will last forever or imagining that the positive ones will last forever is a part of our humanness. So much more helpful to think that we easily recognize that we will experience both night and day and the ebb and flow of a wave on a soft sandy beach.