There are times in our lives and our society when we cannot return to the way things used to be. Our times of no return frequently revolve around relationships, job changes, or illness. Divorce changes everything—the death of a spouse or significant other causes life to spin out of control. Losing your dream career or a well-paying job creates challenges that affect every facet of life. Add to that COVID-19, congenital disabilities, and other life-altering conditions, no wonder we feel adrift with no help in sight.
I have experienced several life-changing events in my journey. I thought I would share what I have learned along the way in the hopes you may come away with something that will help you on your journey as you navigate COVID-19 and the other challenges in your life.
My first significant life change came when I graduated from high school in May 1973. I was a popular and successful student. In my senior year, I was the Student Council President. I spoke at our graduation ceremony about friendship and community, ending my thoughts with these words from the Beatles;
"Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.
Mm, get high with a little help from my friends.
Oh, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends."
Life is good! Full steam ahead to college in Iowa in the fall of 1973.
Two weeks before I was to leave for Cornell College, on a warm Monday morning 250 miles away from home, my dad suffered a massive stroke. He was building a cabin with his friends in Michigan. They had gone up to do more work. My dad never left Michigan alive. Five days later, he was dead.
My world was torn upside down and inside out. My dreams shattered. I lost hope. Despair walked with me no matter where I went. No matter what I wanted, I could no longer live out the life I had envisioned. From his death, I learned Rule One: There is No Return from life-altering events.
No matter how much I cried. No matter how much I prayed, my father was not coming back. I was standing at the launch pad of my adult life only to find mission control canceled the flight because the rocket became inoperable. I was grounded and hurting — an only child who not only was dealing with his grief, but his mother's as well. There was no return to my previous plans and dreams. Life will never be the same.
Since my mom could not afford my chosen college in Iowa, I lived at home and drank my way to clarity. The following fall, I enrolled at a state college. During my first year, I found a community to support a girl and me to love. I guess you could say Jenny was my first real love. I had dated and called a couple of other girls in high school, my "girlfriend," but Jenny helped me through the grieving process. I don't know what would have happened had she not been there for me, which is Rule Number Two. Let others help you!!!
Screw the idea you don't need help. Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on, a person who will listen and not judge, a friend who will hug us when the pain is hard to bear. Jenny did that for me, and in the process, we became very close.
At college, the pain was still there, but my studies and Jenny gave me a sense of moving forward. The truth was, I was a hot fucking mess, which brings me to Rule Three: Remember, you will not be whole nor perfect after your life explodes. My temper was short. I was indecisive. My current life felt strange. I wanted to flee. I wanted to stay. It was a very challenging time in my life.
My hot mess spilled over. I transferred my anger and pain to those around me, including Jenny, who did not deserve it. We broke up after a year because I was a mess.
It was then I discovered Rule Four: Healing takes time. Be patient. You can move forward in a broken state as long as you do not get too far over your skis. How long did it take before I recovered from my father's death? Ten years sounds about right. Now I wasn't a mess for ten years. It just took that long to process, accept, and move forward. A considerable part of that process was working with a counselor who helped me name what I felt. I wasn't crazy. I was going through the stages of grief.
The hardest lesson to absorb when life changes is Rule 5: Be Yourself.
There are so many changes when your life craters that you doubt yourself, your instincts, and those around you. You will be scared. You will ask yourself, am I good enough? Do I still look good, or have the years taken their tolls? Other people are more talented or have better degrees. Can I even compete? We compare ourselves to others to our detriment.
For several years I was caught in that trap of comparison. Eventually, I learned that there always be someone with a better resume, better degrees, and more awards. There will always be someone better looking or better dressed. Always. It was then that I realized the only person I should compete with is myself. I had to be the best me and forgo the competition.
Rule 6: Always put your the best you forward. It makes no difference whether you are applying for a part-time job or going on your first date in years. See the new opportunity or the new person in your life for what they are, not what you want them to be. Be who you are, and you will attract the right people and opportunities to you.
My best me is when I wear my heart on my sleeve. Karen, my wife of 42 years, knew that when we started dating. She said that is what she found attractive in me. I was crazy. I was an extroverted party person. She remembers asking a friend when she saw me in the cafeteria. "Who is that loud, boisterous guy with an afro haircut?"
We knew of each other for a year, but we did not start dating until the summer after I graduated. We carried on a long-distance romance for 29 months, separated by 238 miles and a 4-hour drive. I stayed crazy. We stayed in love and were married in 1979. Through all the years, Karen stuck by me as I found myself. Without her, I would probably be a lifeguard in a carwash drinking beer between cars.
I cannot complain about my life. Yes, I wish my dad had lived for many, many more years. I could have learned so much more from him about life. On the other hand, I have had a successful marriage, we have raised a son, and I worked in four very different industries. Along the way, I accumulated a Bachelors and two Masters Degrees. I have helped countless people with the challenges in their lives as an ordained minister. Even though it is very different from the one I planned so many years ago, my life has been gratifying.
I hope you found something valuable for your life in this post. I am no expert. I am just a traveler who has journeyed ahead and left notes if someone behind me needs help in their journey. Believe in yourself. Believe that YOU can carry on even in the bleakest of times. You may not be able to return, but you can plot a new direction!
I bid you peace for the journey of life!