Monday, February 15, 2010

The Other Side of Change

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the February 14, 2010, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

Many years ago, I got laid off when the company I worked for underwent some major changes. After the initial shock wore off, you can pretty much guess what I did next: I bought an airline ticket to Amsterdam to spend three weeks at the Van Gogh Museum.

Okay, maybe you couldn’t have guessed that. Certainly, I would never have guessed it at the time. My parents had grown up during the Great Depression, which meant that when faced with a layoff, I knew I should hunker down, batten down the hatches, tighten my belt, and hold on for dear life.

Objectively speaking, it’s not a bad strategy. I had some savings, but I was single, paying back student loans, in charge of the care and feeding of my Kitty, and with no family in a position to help me financially.

For months, though, I’d been immersing myself in Vincent’s art and letters, and I desperately wanted to go to the museum, which houses the largest collection of his work. And not just some superficial visit to see a few famous paintings, but a chance to sit with his passion and vision and allow the canvases to breathe with life. I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of such time once I found a new job.

As I stood in the travel agent’s office, deciding whether or not to take the trip, I couldn’t believe I was even considering it when I had no income. But the way I felt afraid told me it was exactly what I needed to do.

My friend Laura used to say that courage is a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. If booking that ticket to the Netherlands was a full set of reps at the bravery gym, then discerning my call has been selection camp for the Courage Olympics.

Change was upon me last fall – that much was unmistakable, though I didn’t know what it was about at first. Something was ripping open, something residing eerily close to my heart. I knew there was a spiritual element to what was happening, but the physical discomfort was overwhelming at times. Exhaustion from so much energy running through my body. A complete lack of resilience that led me to burst into tears at my desk several times a day.

The main symptom was a kind of restlessness. I felt like there was someplace else I was supposed to be. Dizzy and disoriented by the experience, I took to calling it my whirlygig.

I exercised courage simply by staying present with the change. I paid attention, knowing that the fastest way through the discomfort was right up the middle. As the process continued, and my way forward started to become clear, I felt like I was no longer caught in the arms of the whirlygig, spinning wildly, but planted like the pole, firmly in the ground.

On the other side of change, there’s always a gift awaiting us, commensurate with the work we had to do to get there. I know that for me, some of my most profound growth has emerged from experiences I’d never wish on anyone. The key is having the courage to accept that change is happening and to keep moving through. Sometimes, battening down the hatches is a recipe for remaining in the middle of your pain rather than making it to the clarity beyond the edge of the storm.

I didn’t ignore reality when I went to Amsterdam. I stayed in a youth hostel, kept my meals cheap, and planned ahead with an unlimited museum pass. I still had to look for a job when I got home. But my leap of faith was rewarded with the sound of water slapping the sides of a canal, painted figures threshing wheat under a green sky, even a chance to see scores of Vincent’s fragile drawings preserved in archival storage boxes. And I got a template for navigating change, right up the middle of fear.

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