Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Disruptive events

Disruptive events – a major illness, a death of a loved one, a divorce, a big change in employment, etc. – are events over which a person has no control and that are a catalyst for change – good or bad – in a person’s life. Disruptive events always change us, affording an opportunity for growth or disaster.

Some disruptive events are personal (e.g., illness) and others are environmental (an earthquake) or contextual (an employer’s restructuring). Lacking control over disruptive events, we tend to associate negative outcomes with disruptive events (a tendency that a widespread preference for inertia or the status quo reinforces), worry about possible disruptive events, and feel helpless in the face of them.

Not all disruptive events are negative. The birth of a child, marriage, or a big promotion may all constitute disruptive events. Hopefully, all of those examples also promise positive outcomes. As much as we may prefer things to remain static, change is pervasive. Our physical bodies, for example, are largely new every seven years through a gradual process of cell replacement. The process is relatively transparent because of its constancy; only as we age do we generally realize that we have gradually become a different person over the passing years.

The possible disruptive events over which we expend the most energy worrying rarely occur. As an experiment, try listing the major disruptive events that you have most feared over the last year. How many actually happened to you? One reason for this is disparity may be that we avoid, in ways that we do not understand, some of these disruptive events by taking precautions or other steps to avoid them, a process that we may not even comprehend. Another reason for this disparity may be that we have a more pessimistic outlook on life than is statistically justifiable. Yet another reason for the disparity is that most disruptive events are inherently unpredictable, and therefore many of them are not among the bad things about which we worry. Incidentally, worry does not add to length or quality of one’s life.

When a disruptive event does occur, I spend some time reflecting about what I can and cannot control. Items in the latter category I try to accept as givens, acknowledging that I can do nothing but accept them. Focusing on the items over which I can exert some control allows me to restore my sense of independence and self-respect (essential elements, at least for me, of my sense of dignity and worth). Furthermore, focusing on those items over which I may have some influence helps me to make the best of the situation, working to convert negative disruptive events into at least some form of limited opportunity for good.

Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were disruptive events that changed his life – and our lives, even if we are not Christian because the world is a very different place than it would be had the Romans not arrested and executed him. His disciples experienced those disruptive events, and through their belief in his resurrection (in whatever way one understands this), found themselves changed, setting in motion events that changed the Roman Empire and the course of history. I do not think the disciples would have described those disruptive events or their aftermath as fun. But out of disruptions they discovered new and abundant lives that enabled them to do amazing things.

In my own ministry to the seriously ill and dying, I have regularly witnessed people who are living through agonizing disruptive events discover new and more abundant life. Conversations with other clergy, especially hospital and hospice chaplains, are full of similar stories.

If disruptive events are unavoidable, unpredictable, and offer opportunities for transformative experiences, are you ready?

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