Did you choose this? Or did it choose you?

 

The circumstances we face in life are not always of our choosing.  A turning point, though, almost always involves some kind of choice.  For every action that impacts us, there is an equal and opposite reaction that we put out into the world.  This is where choice comes in.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. I did not choose what happened to me.  My turning point was forced on me by someone else’s decisions. Or maybe it just was one of those things that can happen in life that you pray never does, and I just happened to win the dumb luck lottery. But I sure as hell didn’t choose this. Who in their right mind would?”

I used to joke that I don’t recommend a brain tumor as a path to enlightenment. Although my own journey through the medical system  was certainly enlightening and transformative, I don’t wish the experience on anyone.

If I could have chosen my ideal path to understanding the nature of life and death, it would have been a 30-day silent retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, with day trips to the beach to stare out at the ocean and meditate on the ebb and flow.  Maybe a night hike or two, and some really good soup and bread — made from simple ingredients, nothing fancy, but prepared with love.  Solitude. Silence. The solace of the forest. Now that would have been a much more pleasant, less expensive, and faster route to go, and frankly, I wish I’d done that instead.  But no, I had to learn life’s lessons the hard way.

A transformative experience, by its nature, is a an lonely one. Even if multiple people are involved in the same event, no two will experience it in quite the same way.  Grief is like that: its logic and timetable unfolds in patterns unique to each of us.

Yet it’s also true that, in those moments when we feel most alone and lost, we are actually more capable of true connection with other people.  As human beings we instinctively seek out others who can understand what we are going through.

Seeking answers to the questions that confronted me — about my own mortality, the closing of doors and the end of certain dreams, the direction I was supposed to go with my life — I looked for stories from people who had been through what I was going through, who (preferably) had come out on the other side stronger, healthier, happier, wiser, etc.

To my relief, and delight, I did find stories like that. Tons of them. Stories of people who had overcome the most unimaginable circumstances, who had been confronted with wrenching choices, who somehow found the strength to use a turning point as an opportunity to completely change their lives. I read those kinds of stories voraciously, looking for guideposts, signs, insights…anything that could shine a light in the tunnel I was in. Those stories inspired me to keep going.

If you’re in the middle of your own turning point, you’re probably feeling more than a little disoriented. Maybe your life has already turned upside down. Maybe you see a storm brewing on the horizon; your turning point is approaching you. Or maybe you simply have the sense that things are not quite the way they were before; something is different. Something has shifted and you just can’t put your finger on what it is.

For many of us, the circumstances that led to our turning points were not of our own choosing. But we can choose what to do with the tremendous opportunity that a turning point represents. This is a place to share those stories, of people who have not just survived their turning point experiences, but have transformed their lives as as result.

My mission is to offer a beacon to those who find themselves at one of those crossroads. By sharing the stories that inspire me, I hope to illuminate the dark, painful, difficult passageways we sometimes have to navigate in life. Hopefully I can make the one you’re in a little less scary.

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You can’t go back.

The inspiration for this blog grew out of my own experiences of life’s turning points.

A turning point is something that changes the story of our lives in some significant way: a birth, a death, a divorce, a diagnosis.  Moving to a new city. Falling in love. Leaving a job.  These are things that divide our lives into before and after segments.  (Between them is a dramatic during; but I digress.)

What these experiences have in common is a quality of permanence. Some things, once done, cannot be undone.  Some things, once seen, cannot be unseen. Some truths, once known, cannot be forgotten.

What I noticed about the turning points in my own life was, there were certain thresholds that were points of no return.  Once over them, I couldn’t go back — even if I desperately wanted to.  One door opens; another closes.

There’s a wonderful scene in the film “Field of Dreams” where a rookie baseball player named Archie Graham steps off the field to save a little girl choking in the stands.  The camera work that shows the transformation of the young man into his older self, Doc Graham, is beautifully done.  And the respect the other players show him as he leaves the field always brings tears to my eyes.

But it’s the exchange just before that, where Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella says, “Oh my God, you can’t go back,” that really gets to me.  Once transformed, Doc Graham couldn’t go back to being the young man he was before, or fulfill his lifelong dream of batting in the majors.  “It would KILL some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it,” Kinsella says. “God, they’d consider it a tragedy.”

Graham replies, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.”

To leave the playing field of life with no regrets; to not look back and wonder “what if….?”

That would be a worthy goal.  I hope to get there someday.

But until that day, while I’m still alive, I want to know more about those turning points where life could have gone one way but instead went a different way, opening new possibilities but closing off others.  

doorway

I want to understand what happens in that I space where everything changes.

To do so, I’ll be conducting interviews with volunteers who are willing to tell their stories about the turning points that transformed their lives.   The initial survey comes in a Q & A-style format that invites participants to reflect on how the experience changed them, what they wish they had known before, and what they would say to someone in a similar situation.

There are thousands of choices we make in any given time that shape who we become.  But there are only a handful of moments that alter the course of our lives. Those are the moments that interest me.  Those are the stories I am drawn to listen to, and to share.

 

You’re “in the arena.”

The phrase “in the arena” is how author Brene Brown describes the experience of showing up, taking a risk and putting ourselves out there.

This blog is built around turning points, those moments in life when everything changes — including and especially you. A turning point fundamentally reshapes who you are.  Reflecting on my own experiences, and talking to others about theirs, I’ve found that turning points seem to come with three distinct components:

— “Before“: what life was like before everything changed

— “During“: the decision or event that changed everything

— “After“: how you were changed, how those around you were changed, how life was different after that

The “arena” Brown talks about is where the action happens. It’s the space where the biggest shifts occur. It’s the “during” component of a turning point.

What does the arena feel like? If you’ve been there, you never forget it (although you might wish you could). You know you’re in it when you’re thinking something like:

“Oh my God, I cannot believe I am actually doing this.”

“Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

“The moment I have dreamt
about for months has finally arrived, and all I can think about is finding a bathroom to hide out/throw up in.”

In other words, you know you’re in the arena when you’re in it. And it’s too late to get out of it.

There’s a story I tell about one of my “arena moments” that my kids love because it features both a beloved cousin AND a Star Wars villain.

My niece Brigitta was due to be born during the peak of the hazelnut harvest, when my brother-in-law would be in the fields and unreachable for several hours each day. My sister-in-law asked me if I would be her birth coach.

My mother-in-law thought it was a terrible idea. I was childless at the time. “She’ll never want to have kids if she sees that!” Not to worry, I assured her. I was a science major. Blood and guts do not scare me. I can handle this.

Have you ever seen a baby being born? It’s a miracle. An unbelievable, exhilarating, terrifying, messy miracle.

Birth is an arena experience.

I should say here that my niece Brigitta is one the most beautiful and poised young women I know. She’s an actress, dancer, singer, and scholar.  She’s a gracious, thoughtful, fun-loving older sister to my kids, who adore her.

But at the moment of her birth, dear friends, my niece Brigitta looked exactly like Darth Maul.  With the body of an alien.  Her head was dark maroon and bumpy. The rest of her was pasty gray.

The logical thing would have been to run like hell. I have seen those movies, and I know what happens next. Sigourney Weaver was not there to save us. Running was not an option. It was too late.

I looked frantically at the midwife. What do we do? We cannot show this alien baby to Marianne. She has labored for hours, she’s worked so hard…we can’t let her see this. Please read my mind…and do something!”

At that point, someone in a white coat took the baby by the ankles, turned her upside down, and clapped her hard on the back three times. There were some suctiony sounds, and then a sharp breath —

— and the most amazing thing happened. Brigitta began to cry, and within one minute, she had pinked up and become the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen in my life. She was a perfect pink rose.

It’s one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever been a part of, and I almost missed it because I almost chickened out.  When it got scary, I wanted to turn tail and run the other way. I cannot handle this!

Luckily, it was too late to back out. There are some things that you can’t unsee, and Darth Maul’s head on a tiny gray alien body is one of them. But seeing the miracle of birth, of life, of a baby’s first breath? That’s pretty damn stunning, and spectacular.

And that’s the thing about the arena: when you’re in it, you know because you’re way outside your comfort zone. Where the miracles happen. 

Let’s begin.

 

You’ve got to begin somewhere. Whether you’re bright-eyed and enthusiastic, or kicking and screaming, when the time has come and you can’t wait/put it off any longer, you have to begin.

Beginnings come in all forms – dramatic, anticlimactic, conscious, unconscious. Does it matter whether you’ve made the choice or not? No. Jump out of the airplane or be pushed: the destination is the same. (Overall satisfaction with experience may vary.)

Beginnings are scary because they have the power to transform the beginner.  Whether you’ve joyfully embraced a new opportunity, or have been thrust unwillingly into some fresh hell, the act of beginning reshapes the landscape of one’s life.  There are some endeavors that, once begun, will change you forever.

For reluctant starters like me, this prospect is daunting enough that I’ll go to extraordinary lengths to put off getting started as long as I can.  When I’ve exhausted my methods of procrastination, and can no longer avoid the inevitable, I turn to other people’s stories for inspiration, and find the courage to begin.

One of those stories is told in the film “Awakenings,”adapted from the book by the same name by Dr. Oliver Sacks.  In 1969, Dr. Sacks was working in a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx with patients who had been catatonic for decades. The encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1915 – 1926 had left them in a statue-like state, unable to speak or move.  In clinical trials, Sacks discovered that experimental doses of a new drug, of a new L-DOPA, could “awaken” these patients, with astonishing results: people who had been in a seemingly vegetative state for years could suddenly dance, catch a ball, feed themselves, and carry on a normal conversation. 

At first, the treatments were successful. “For a certain time, in almost every patient who is given L-DOPA,” Sacks said, there was “a beautiful, unclouded return to health.” Hospital staff watched in disbelief as the frozen figures in their care come to life before their eyes. “Very suddenly, sometimes one of these patients would be released from this state and would speak and move, then you could see what a vivid, alive, real person was there, imprisoned in a sort of way by some strange physiological change… The suddenness was incredible and nothing which I had read about gave me any hint of this.”

Some beginnings are like that: a surprise, immediate success, and lots of fanfare. In this case, however, the success was short-lived. “Sooner or later,” Sacks wrote, “in one way or another, almost every patient is plunged into problems and troubles.” One by one, they returned to their catatonic states.

After such a promising start, it was a demoralizing failure. But beginnings have a stubborn habit of rooting themselves in the ashes of endings. Which brings us to the second turning point in the film.

The awakening of the encephalitis patients turned out to be a transformative experience for Dr. Sacks and the hospital stuff. Even when confronted with “the reality of miracles” as the limitations and side effects of the treatment begin to reveal themselves, the patients’ caregivers were forever changed. Now that they’d seen the real people trapped inside those seemingly empty shells, they could not un-see them. They could not pretend there was no one home inside their patients’ heads and that nothing could be done for them. What began as an experiment became a rescue effort. There was no choice but to begin again.

In the film’s final scene,  Sacks explains the transformation:

“What we do know is that as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. That the human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished. With work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’ve forgotten. The simplest things.”

In the beginning, Sacks said, “there was great joy and a sort of lyrical delight in the world which had been given back. I remember one patient stroking leaves and looking at the night lights of New York on the horizon. And everything was a source of delight and gratitude.” Yet there was also pain and confusion as both patients and caregivers were confronted with new realities.  Together they grieved the loss of so many years of life, and struggled to adapt a world that was very different than the one they’d known.

Later, that grief was compounded by a fresh set of losses as patients relapsed, reacted violently to medication, or returned to catatonia. Still, despite setbacks, most patients were able to achieve an equilibrium that allowed them to enjoy richer lives than was previously thought possible.

For a reluctant starter, the “Awakenings” story might seem like a cautionary tale rather than a source of inspiration.   A brilliant success, followed by a crushing failure?  No thanks. When I’m stalled with my own projects, spinning my wheels, and sputtering out,  I want the kind of happy, heroic ending that says, “You too can do great things!  Hang on; everything will turn out fine!”

The message of “Awakenings” is more subtle, and more solidly grounded in real life. The film ends with a clip that brings the viewer back to the  beginning of the story, before the L-DOPA trials.  In it, Dr. Sacks is  working with the patient who will eventually provide the experiment’s first breakthrough.  But neither of them know it at the time.  “Let’s begin,” Sacks says.

There’s a beautiful innocence in that scene, because no one knows how the experiment will turn out.  For that moment, it is enough just to begin.

That’s the lesson I draw from this story: all beginnings have to start somewhere.  Eventually we’ll know how the story ends, but not unless we take a leap of faith and begin…again, and again. Confident or clueless, prepared or petrified…it doesn’t matter.  Ready or not, it starts here now.

 

 

those moments in life that change everything