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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Sudden Tragedy


Many people will experience today a troubling and unexpected surprise when they receive divorce papers on behalf of their spouse.  Some will not be unexpected, to be sure.  But any others will be blindsided, or at the least disappointed as they were hoping to get their marital problems worked out and their marriages back on track.  

At the same time, those people are not the only individuals who will experience a sudden life change today, and have to deal with the new situation they find themselves in.  

Granted, there is a difference when someone you love turns against you and rejects your love from losing your house in an earthquake or even suffering grief through the death of a loved one…but divorce certainly isn’t the only traumatic life change people experience.  

Life is just messy like that sometimes, isn’t it?  

None of us is immune from the unexpected, and having the skills to handle such events is critical.

How do you respond to sudden tragedy?  

Sure, shock, fear, depression, anger, denial, desperation, efforts to try to reverse the reality….all those kinds of emotions and reactions are some of the natural responses, especially in the early stages of the event.  But I am asking you to consider beyond the initial responses.  When we have such events thrust upon us, we all have to decide how to move forward in life afterwards.  Very often we actually already have skills to help us through, if we remember to use them. Some life skills, however, will only be developed in the crucible of such events.

I don’t know if you have heard of Christians who like to adopt what they call a “life-verse,” or not, but I know some folks like that.  They select a verse that has special meaning for them, or special challenge, or that reflects what they perceive as their calling and purpose in life.  In conversation with a friend recently, we were talking about that idea, and while it isn’t something that I participate in, I suggested to my friend that if I were going to adopt one, some days I think it would be the first half of Hebrews 10:36—“For you have need of endurance…”

Some days, enduring is about as much as I think I can handle.  Actually, I wanted to offer that as an example of the kind of life skill that comes only through adversity.  If you never had anything you had to endure, then you would never learn the ability to endure.

When life change events come along, it is very easy to get so caught up in the loss, that you start to live in the past, longing for how things used to be, even to the point of rewriting the past and forgetting that some of the past wasn’t so great!  This kind of reaction often leads to getting stuck in life, stuck in mourning, loss and depression.  Certainly grieving the loss that accompanies sudden changes is important, but healthy grieving involves eventual acceptance of the new reality and moving forward in life.

One of the hardest things to learn in such life change experiences is that, along with the loss, something is always also gained. Sticking with divorce as an example, one of the things gained is the opportunity for self-examination so as to restructure your future according to the values you hold dear, without having to negotiate or compromise those values with a spouse whose values are in conflict.  This can lead to a fuller expression of your self-hood than can sometimes exists in dysfunctional and stifling marriages (which, ultimately are the kind of marriages that end in divorce, in my opinion).  As part of that self-examination, one is also forced to identify previously unseen personal shortcomings and flaws that may have contributed to the divorce.  Such identification yields the opportunity for growth and change if we embrace it instead of fighting against it.

Moving locations can be one of those life change events. Depending on why you move, it may be one of the traumatic kind, or one that is more positively viewed.  Down through the years, I have lived in several different locations and states.  Each time I moved to somewhere fresh, it was always a mixed bag.  I was venturing into the unknown, usually going to a place where I didn’t know anybody.  It was always a bit of a risk, but a risk I often describe as an adventure.  

At the same time, it is also always an experience of loss, as I left behind good friends, homes in which I had grown comfortable, local opportunities that I enjoyed.  For example, when I lived in the Cincinnati area, I loved visiting the many huge preserves of protected forested areas, and enjoyed regular visits to the wonderful zoo that is there.  Those experiences are now among my treasured memories, as I no longer live there or have the opportunity to visit those places as freely as I once did. However, there are other opportunities that have come in other places.  In one town, I had the chance to coach and referee soccer games, in another the chance to enjoy an older home with lots of character, and now that I am a resident of Nebraska, I had the opportunity to attend one of the College World Series baseball games in Omaha.  Each experience was unique to the location where I lived, opportunities that would not have been mine had I not relocated.  There is no doubt that I often miss being with friends I have known over the years.  Some of those friends are on the East coast, some in the Cincinnati area, some in the Kansas City area and other places.  But it is because I have moved around that I have developed these friendships in all these places with people I would not otherwise have met!

Sometimes when we grieve the changes and loss, we long for things to be as they were, to stay the same.  However, it is foolish of us to think that if we stayed in the same situation, things would be the same.  The truth is, many of my friends from the East Coast no longer live where we lived at the time…they have moved, too.  Friends who had time when we were studying in graduate school are now caught up with families and careers, and their time is limited, as is mine.  

Things don’t just stay the same.

So what kind of skills get you through life changing events? Well, they probably vary according to your own personality and experiences, but I will suggest a few. 

One is developing the ability to not only see the hardship and loss, but to find ways to see opportunity and advantages, to reject the blinders that keep us from seeing only the hard things in life.  

Another is learning how to not face these changes alone, leaning on old friendships and developing new ones to provide the companionship and encouragement we need when life leaves us confused and uncertain.  

And to close the blog, I would suggest only one more skill to develop, and that is the skill of appreciation or gratitude.  Appreciate and treasure those memories and special times from prior to the life change, rather than simply mourning them.  But don’t let yourself get stuck even there….develop the kind of perspective that allows you to also appreciate and be grateful for the positive things that are in your life NOW…refusing to live in either the past or the future, recognizing instead that each day of life is a precious gift, and that there is always something good around us if we would but take the time to notice.  

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