What unwanted change is wreaking havoc in your life right now? Maybe it’s a significant loss—you were fired, someone you loved died or left you, or you’re grappling with an unexpected financial setback or liability. Maybe you received a frightening diagnosis, or you are struggling with an ongoing illness or disability. Maybe it’s an upsetting situation (or person) that you can’t avoid, such as an unreasonable boss, a troublesome neighbor, or a forced move and undesirable change of location. Whatever it may be, how are you handling it?
I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of person. I believe in the power of positive thinking. Yet, how can you be upbeat when your life suddenly changes dramatically for the worse? How can you get past all the inner turmoil when you’ve lost so much or continually have to deal with a person or situation that you hate but can’t get away from?
In this multi-part series, I’m going to share four steps that have been very helpful to me when I have felt heart-broken, frustrated, disappointed, sorry for myself, or any number of other negative emotions due to some unwanted change, circumstance, or person in my life. These insights first came to me many years ago when wrestling with painful relational issues when my family and I walked across northern Spain on the Camino in 2006. Over time, I’ve come to see that the same “4 Steps to Loving A Hard to Love Person” (See, Accept, Appreciate, and Delight) also provide a pathway to coping better with any unwanted change in my life. These steps may take a great deal of time to work through, but when taken thoughtfully and prayerfully, they have proven very helpful in getting unstuck mentally and emotionally in a wide variety of difficult situations. In this post, we’ll look at just the first step in this process.
Step 1: “See”
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.Psalm 137:1 (NRSV)
When ancient Israel suddenly found themselves as captives in Babylon in 586 BC, they had to grapple with incredible losses—the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (Zion), their forced exile from their home country, and the collapse of their lives as they knew them. We can’t go back to reconstruct all the ways they handled this tragedy, but can infer from the text that, instead of putting their heads in the sand (e.g., by believing false prophets who tried to give them false hope of returning to Judah), the exiles saw the situation for what it was, faced the awful truth, and let themselves feel the emotional weight of their losses. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept….” Such grief was bitter, but it was also an important step toward moving forward.
However, for many of us, when we experience great loss or are suddenly forced to cope with frightening or overwhelming burdens, instead of facing the truth as the Israelites did, we get stuck in nonproductive, emotional turmoil. We may walk around in a daze or even in denial of what’s happened, or our fight-flight-freeze instincts may trigger an intense emotional response that either ties us up in knots on the inside or pushes us to act in unhelpful or even hurtful ways.
That’s what was happening to me for much of 2021. After 13 years of (in-person) teaching in Myanmar, the doors suddenly slammed shut in my face, when the military seized power in a coup-d’état on February 1. My school suspended all classes, the country began its ongoing slide into disarray, and it became no longer safe for me to return. Then there was the daily trauma from continual reports of imprisonment, beatings, or killing of protestors, doctors, journalists, political opponents of the regime, and even some of my students. Houses were burned to the ground and hundreds of thousands fled to the jungles to survive.
All this felt overwhelming and too difficult to fully face. For months, I felt almost panicky about my powerlessness to help them. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing more, yet I could never identify what I could do differently. And so, instead of coming to grips with reality, I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety on their behalf, as if sharing their distress and desperation would somehow prove that I wasn’t abandoning them in their hour of need. The truth was, I was so caught up in my unexamined, emotional reaction that I couldn’t realistically assess the situation. I was stuck in my emotional turmoil, carrying a burden that wasn’t helpful to me or anyone else.
How about you? Where are you being held prisoner by your emotional reactions? What do you need to see more clearly about whatever you’re grappling with?
- What did you lose or what burden has been placed on your shoulders that you did not choose and do not want?
- What is the clearest, most accurate, description of what happened or is happening?
- If you could name it, in a word or two, what would you call what happened to you?
- How is this [unwanted situation] affecting you emotionally, physically, relationally, and spiritually?
- What is your best realistic assessment of the implications of this change for your future?
Even if it takes more time than you’d like to be able to answer these questions clearly, don’t give up until you get enough emotional distance to accurately assess your situation. Be patient with yourself, but don’t give up. The goal is to be able to make good decisions about your future based on the truth instead of being held prisoner to your emotional reactions or a distorted picture of reality.
Here is one short prayer that I created many years ago continues to be helpful to me whenever I’m in emotional turmoil and can’t seem to see clearly. Perhaps it will help you, too.
“Loving God, please help me to see whatever I need to see. Give me courage to face the truth, and wisdom and strength to act on whatever you reveal.”
Next week, Step 2: “Accept,” the next critical step toward recovering your inner peace and joy.