Last night I received a call from a loved one in Seattle. She and her roommates were self-quarantined in their home, at least one of them had COVID-19. They are young and vital, yet with Seattle melting down around them, their workplaces closed, graduation postponed, and their college classes abruptly shifted online, the household was becoming a veritable titanic of emotion. She was leaving Seattle, she said, along with her roommate, to take refuge at her roommate’s family home across the country.
Let’s face it, the holidays can be really intense. December is filled with lots of opportunities to be triggered: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ōmisoka, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and New Year’s Eve. Something about the combination of family, obligations, politics, secrets, loyalties, gift buying expense and stress, alcohol, and unresolved tension creates a toxic cocktail for drama. And most of the time we are dealing with folks who don’t know how to relate skillfully or consciously.
I’m looking out upon another six inches of snow — it’s 18 degrees outside. Everything is at a standstill. Traffic. Errands. All of my plans. The snow muffles most sounds. The world is quiet.
I love these snow days because we’re given permission to stop. No school. Meetings are cancelled. Deadlines delayed. No expectations that we’ll race around at our usual velocity. The flywheel of life is allowed to wind down just a little.
It’s about the only circumstance we’re allowed such space anymore. All other kinds of stopping, waiting, and pausing seem forbidden. However, life presents us with difficult transitions or cycles that not only deserve such time, but come with a biological imperative for it.
None of us are immune to intense health or emotional crises that stop us in our tracks. What we lack as a society is the constructive framing and support of such transitions. Crises are seen as something to push through, push past, merely survive and shove aside. Our pharmaceutical culture would have us take a pill and just get on with it. Even friends can turn their backs, uneasy with the discomfort your crisis evokes.
The origin of the word crisis means ‘a turning point’ or ‘to decide or discriminate’ and ‘to sift and separate’, which is exactly what a crisis provides — a chance to shift from one place to an altogether different place inside ourselves. Though terrifying and painful, holding it with the respect and nobility it deserves allows us to embrace the possibility that life is conspiring to do us well, to teach us what we need, to become the people we are called to be.
Author William Horden published an article in The Huffington Post that reminds us of how nature reveals the truth behind what really happens in a crisis. We all know the metaphor of the caterpillar morphing into a butterfly. Yet Horden goes into important detail:
At some point in a butterfly larvae’s life, his skin begins to harden around him, he writes. They then will reside in their hermetically sealed chrysalis while their body literally melts down. There the caterpillar’s digestive juices turn against it, totally dissolving the caterpillar and turning it into nothing but green liquid. Complete breakdown. Should you cut open the chrysalis at this time, the only thing you would see is a green goo pouring out.
There are cells, called imago cells, Horden continues, that serve absolutely no purpose in the butterfly’s life…up until now. When the meltdown is complete, these cells suddenly awaken and organize the other cells to reform and regroup as a butterfly.
I can barely imagine what this transition must be like from the larvae’s perspective. But I can say that at certain times of my life, such internal, and external melting has happened. And things that seemed so much a part of me, or what I called my life, just dissolved — health, friends, family members, professions, marriages, homes, financial stability.
Looking back I see what melted away, had to melt away. The crisis served to ‘sift and separate’ to reveal an essential intrinsic essence. From there a new direction was formed, that was wholly in alignment with that essence.
My mother is one of the bravest, wisest people I know. A two-time cancer survivor, including liver cancer, she embarked on her healing as any hero would do. I call her a cancer-thriver because she did more than survive. She allowed the crisis to return her to her essence and emerged more empowered and free than ever.
“Cancer saved my life,” she says.
Cancer stopped her in her tracks, and in that moment, for the first time, she saw how toxic and abusive her marriage was to an alcoholic. Within weeks of her last surgery, she left him and left the UK to live in the US, closer to me and her grandchildren, and live an astonishingly active and joyful life.
How did she do it? She prescribed to the knowing that her crisis was not just some arbitrary terrible thing, but a moment to sit up and listen. She engaged with it, rather than running from it. She became a student of it, learning all of the things such a crisis teaches. And, as importantly, she had people around her that understood this too.
This is how we turn a crisis into a transition. How we turn from victim, to the hero on our archetypal journey. How we engage with literal metamorphosis.
It means turning away from the cultural norm of a pathology mindset, and turning towards more indigenous thinking, which aligns with the understanding that transition is sacred.
Horden writes, “In many shamanic societies it is taken for granted that shamans are not born—they are created by some intense health or emotional crisis. What emerges from such crises is a metamorphosed person. Not who they were or even who they were going to be but someone more attuned to the world, more adaptable to change, and more powerful in their ability to benefit others. Healers are created out of crisis.”
I would add that true leaders are created out of crisis.
If we are going to change as a society, we need to reframe the idea of crisis for ourselves and each other. Perhaps before we reach for a drink, or a credit card, or a pill, we instead allow ourselves to feel that anxious onset of the chrysalis skin hardening. We can understand that sense of depression is how it naturally feels to take our first step into the dark forest of the hero’s journey.
And we can be there for each other with this knowing. We can hold for each other that melted green liquid without worry, or shock, or disgust. We can gently cup the soul-turned-liquid with reverence, trust and awe, so that we might not just survive, but thrive.