Thanksgiving day in 1985 was dreary and cold. My son, our first child, had been born eight days earlier but spent his first six days of life in the hospital. He had contracted viral meningitis shortly after being born making the joy of his birth short-lived. His young, first-time parents hadn’t prepared for that possibility and my wife and I spent many hours in the NICU that first week, often arriving at the hospital at two in the morning, donning scrubs and face masks, taking turns to bottle feed him. Our first major decision as parents had been to authorize a spinal tap—a painful procedure for a person of any age. Too inexperienced to know what was best we followed the doctor’s recommendations which fortunately all turned out for the best. Our fears diminished, we were finally allowed to take our son home. Our first Thanksgiving as a new family was just the three of us. Our son’s immune system was still compromised so visitors were not a good idea. There is a photograph of me taken by my wife that day. I’m holding a fully cooked turkey on a platter, smiling with a gleam in my eye that also showed how tired I was—and nervous. New beginnings. They are the stuff of life. You can’t avoid them so it is best to greet them with a sense of gratitude for what was—and a sense of adventure for what will be.
The Cycle of Change
New beginnings usually bring about a combination of excitement and trepidation. A new beginning, by definition, is untested and therefore causes uncertainty. What if things don’t work out? we may wonder. The part of our brain that operates to protect us doesn’t like surprises or unpredictability. It is like a trained guard dog that would prefer to bark at everybody—even a trusted family member—than to risk misjudging an intruder as a friend. The number one reason many people prefer maintaining the status quo to risking an uncertain future is the fear of some future loss—the loss of money, the loss of safety, the loss of esteem, or the loss of an important relationship. And yet, research finding suggest that people who take reasonable risks and face fears in the process will report greater self-esteem later even if their efforts did not end in success. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at allis an axiom that carries truth.
Change Is Inevitable
The irony is that change is inevitable and the effort to preserve the status quo not only can never truly succeed for very long, but it reinforces your belief that change is to be feared and that you cannot handle changes that may come your way. Our bodies change over time, our health changes, our physical abilities change. We change jobs and careers. We retire. People we love often relocate to places farther away from us. Friends come and go. Loved ones pass away. Our roles change. We may no longer need to provide for children that have grown up and left home. We may end up caring for elderly parents who once cared for us.
Another reason we may resist change is because it often means saying goodbye to something or someone else that has been important to our welfare. Change is a reminder that grabbing hold of something new probably means letting go of something old—some way of life must be released to make way for a new way of life. The good news is that we usually adapt to these changes until they become the new status quo—and then the day arrives when that status quo no longer serves us and the cycle of change renews itself.
The Wizard of Oz—And You
I believe that one of the reasons the movie The Wizard of Oz still enthralls people today is because it is a metaphor for how all of us grow and change. When our lives turn in a new direction, when we say goodbye to part of our past and venture forth to new and unfamiliar roads that await us, true growth and personal transformation can occur. For most of us most of the time, transformation begins with disruption of the status quo. We move from a place of being fully orientedin our world to being disoriented. Eventually we become re-oriented—hopefully with a wiser perspective about life, love, and our purpose for being alive.
Think of the times you faced major challenges. Like Dorothy, your life had been going along as expected—for better or worse—but fairly predictable. In fact, that is how most well written movies, novels, and stage plays begin—the life of the hero is shown to be predictable, perhaps even ordinary. But then—usually ten minutes or so into the movie—a “triggering event” occurs. This event need not be calamitous but it alerts the hero to the fact that things are about to change. In The Wizard of Oz this moment occurs when Dorothy decides to run away from home to protect her dog Toto from the mean Mrs. Gulch. In your life, this moment may be a phone call that a parent has taken ill, or a threat of a job loss, or a health scare, or trouble in a personal relationship. The next phase is more dramatic. Then your world gets upended. For Dorothy, this occurred when she was swept up by the tornado and transported to the land of Oz. For the rest of us, that is a metaphor for when our life changes drastically—perhaps in a serious way such as the death of a loved one—or in a less serious but life-altering way such as when the last child leaves home or you relocate to a far-off place away from friends and family. Now we are in a new world that operates with some different rules. The future is not as clear as it had been. This is often a time when we have second thoughts about our decisions or when we long for the familiarity of the past. But there is no going back.
The Wandering Phase
Perhaps the most disorienting part of major life changes occurs during the wanderingphase. This is where Dorothy had to follow the yellow-brick road but had no idea what to expect along the way. In some religious traditions this has been called wandering in the desertor the dark night of the soul.Here, answers are not readily forthcoming and while the hero may be making decisions about what to do and where to go, the hero is more often reacting to events rather than charting a clear course. In the classic story The Lord of the Ringsyoung Frodo must carry the ring of power and face all manner of evil he is ill-equipped to confront. In the Oz story, this is when Dorothy meets up with her travel companions and realizes the wicked witch is out to stop her. Faced with uncertainty, our lower brain cares nothing about personal growth and cares only about personal and psychological safety. If you only heed the advice of your lower brain you will withdraw into hiding or be unable to make decisions for fear of making your situation worse. You may dwell on what was rather than forge ahead to what can be. But if you are wise enough you will understand that personal transformation only comes from facing fears and discovering inner strengths you didn’t know you possessed. You then become a warrior.
The Warrior Phase
In this phase you become more active than reactive. Your forge ahead to achieve new insights and to adapt to the new phase of life you are entering. Here you must do battle. Dorothy battled the wicked witch. Frodo battled evil creatures. You may be battling a serious health problem, or battling day-to-day life as you struggle to create a future when a cherished loved one is no longer by your side. But the enemy that is faced is always a metaphor for the real battle that must occur—the battle you face within yourself. In many old stories the hero must battle a dragon. Dragons are reptiles with wings. The reptilian aspect represents earthbound qualities we all possess—our fears, our animal instincts, and our desires for material things. But the wings represent a search for the heavens, a capacity for spiritual wisdom. So the concept of slaying a dragon really means transcending our lower, egoistic needs as we pursue and attain spiritual growth and awareness. Young Dorothy transformed from a scared girl who wanted to run away from home, to a warrior who battled her fears for safety to learn that “there’s no place like home.” For the rest of us, loss and change allows us the opportunity to learn great lessons—to appreciate the fullness of life and to become wiser in the process. The disruptions we endured allowed us to re-orient ourselves away from fear and toward the higher values of gratitude for what was and trust for what will be. Until the cycle of changes once more begins anew…