A woman I admire asked me to lunch last week. She’s the kind of woman you note across a room — you see her vitality, sense her kindness, adore her laughter. She’s a pip.
Shortly after the waitress took our order, my friend looked me in the eye and asked, “How did you do it?” For a minute I felt a little like O.J. Simpson and ran through the many things I could have done which require some kind of explanation, or a book contract. She went on, “Because I’m going to be following in your footsteps.”
Then I knew. See, I went through a painful, unexpected divorce a few years ago, and in an instance I could see the familiar wash of emotions — sadness, confusion, pain, grief, relief — on that dear woman’s face. “You seem to have your act together now, Michele,” she said. “How did you get to be so peaceful and happy?”
How’d I do it? In that moment, I couldn’t think of how I did it. I babbled a little bit, pushed a pickle across the plate, and focused on listening to her story intently. Later, when I gathered myself, I told her that my journey was just a series of baby steps — in the aggregate, more forward than backward — toward a new life. One thing I knew for sure: somewhere along the way I made a real commitment to feeling better, and to my own personal growth.
I changed, I told her, through the crisis of my divorce. Which is a good thing, believe me! I let go of that which no longer served me and kept or grew that which does serve me — that which allows me to be the best possible…me.
I told my friend that the same outcome could be hers, and that I’d be there to help.
I went home with a niggling feeling that I hadn’t given my friend specific tools she could use to manage her crisis. I was a little frustrated — hey, I’m a coach! I should be able to do better!
That night I picked up a book I’d just started reading — Change 101 by Bill O’Hanlon. Imagine my surprise when O’Hanlon identified three keys to turn crisis into an opportunity for growth: connection, compassion and contribution. Wow! Why couldn’t I have read it the day before?
So, my friend, here are O’Hanlon’s Three Keys to Changing in a Crisis (and the answer to your question “Michele, how did you do it?”):
Does the crisis allow you deeper connections with yourself, with others, or with deeper meaning? In my case, the answer was (d) all of the above. Today I am more myself than at any other time in my life. I have deeper connections with friends and family, and have even made new friends since my divorce (which is not always easy to do at any age). I have learned from so many people, and listened to so many wonderful teachers. But the greatest gift is the knowledge that I am connected, in a spiritual way, to everyone and everything. This has been a deep and meaningful shift for me, and forms the very framework of my life.
Did the crisis lead you to accept yourself and others? Here’s another big shift: I now know that even the most flawed person is probably doing his very best given his situation. I hold in my mind the idea, espoused by theologian Henri Nouwen, that love is best defined as making a safe place for another person to be fully himself. OK. If I am trying to bring more love into the world (which is an intention of mine), then I have to accept you for what you are and what you bring. Not who I think you should be or what you should bring…no, it’s all about you, baby. Which, of course, frees up my time because I am no longer struggling with or against you. Creative loafing, anyone?
Can you find a way to give back because of the crisis? Feeling that you can help others who’ve been through a similar experience can be an uplifting experience. It can ease your passage through the stages of grief, and give you, again, a sense of belonging. And helping. And being a force for good in the universe. I stumbled on an amazing online divorce support group which was key to processing my experience and allowed me the opportunity to help others. I met some of the nicest, most thoughtful and generous people in the world who were either in exactly the same spot as I — or had been there. It was very comforting to not feel so alone.
Crisis is not always about divorce. It’s finding out you won’t have a job in January, which is what five of my clients recently learned. It’s illness, or death. It’s your house burning down. It’s your child in trouble. It’s your brother in trouble. It’s you in trouble.
We rightly tend to think of crisis in terms of loss, because there is usually something which has to go. With O’Hanlon’s rubric — making sure we make connections, have compassion and find a way to contribute — we can use crisis to change. We turn the tables on scary old crisis and use it (ruthlessly and with no regard for its feelings) to effect positive, lasting and marked change in our lives.