Life events are the situations; the insight we gain is our story. What meaning do you make of the turning points in your life?
Have you ever waited for something that seemed to take forever to happen or get resolved? And after all that waiting, the outcome wasn’t guaranteed or might not be what you expected?
I’m still lying in bed 20 hours a day, waiting for the pain to lessen and my spine to heal on its own from two compression fractures. The neurosurgeon’s PA says to give it 12 weeks. It’s been almost 6 weeks since I fractured the second vertebra (bending over to pick up a box of band-aids), one vertebra above the first fracture 5 months ago. The nerve pain that shoots out my hip and down my leg has been unbearable, and lying in bed aggravates it no matter what position I try. I wake up every hour or two at night and I get through the days in a haze, drugged and sleep deprived. Standing and sitting are even worse, so I bide my time in bed as the piles of snow melt after a record-breaking Minnesota winter snowfall and the dreary days of spring rain promise eventual color to my world. Some days the waiting is as unbearable as the pain. It’s hard to find hope without improvement, especially when the outcome remains uncertain and surgery isn’t an option.
It’s another time of just getting through. But it’s also a time to reflect on the realities of chronic illness, aging, and life goals. I’ve had lots of time to think – when I can break through the foggy haze and all-consuming and unrelenting pain.
When has your body forced you to rest? Did you listen to it and allow yourself time to rest, reflect, and process what led up to the illness or injury and how it might impact your well-being? Or did you keep on plugging along and jump back into your previous functioning once recovered? Of course, the severity of the illness or injury influences our response. We expect to fully recover from the ubiquitous cold or flu virus or sprain or even a broken bone. And yet, everything heals faster with rest and sleep.
Age and underlying conditions affect healing too. I’m only in my 60s, but with autoimmune illnesses and an immune deficiency, I don’t resist injury or heal well. This progressive degeneration of my spine and the extended “healing” period has forced me to realize that life will never again be the same. I’m facing a turning point in my life.
The Situation and the Story
We all experience life events that change us forever—those “before and after” events—before kids/after kids, before diagnosis/after diagnosis, before their death/after their death. These turning points shape our identity, routines, and beliefs about the world and our place in it. Any event can be a turning point if it changes our direction, provides a new perspective, or changes our worldview. Think back to how getting that first apartment, moving, changing jobs/careers, getting married/divorced, or launching kids off to college changed your role or life’s direction. We may not realize the event’s impact until later when we take the time to process how we changed and what it meant in our life.
The events in life are the situations. The meaning they hold is the story, your story. Just as in writing memoir, it isn’t the event itself that’s important, but what we learn or take away from it that gives it meaning. The job you chose or the city you moved to gave your life meaning because you gained insight about yourself or learned something from it.
A memoirist finds meaning in life’s events by reliving them, examining them, and making sense of them from a distance. Perspective and insight emerge over time. And the meaning we ascribe to the events may change over time.
Shutterstock, Brian A Jackson
In his book, From Where You Dream (one of my faves), Robert Olen Butler suggests that writers who want to make sense of their past be curious and ask questions in order to discover the meaning the events hold. This exercise isn’t just for writers; it helps all of us discover what we value, more clearly see our strengths and challenges, and show how our circumstances and choices shaped who we are.
Think back to the turning points in your life and ask yourself:
- What led up to the event?
- What happened after? What was the outcome?
- What did I learn/discover?
- What meaning did it hold for me?
- What insights or wisdom did I take away from the experience?
Approach the exercise as a curious onlooker. Be open, accepting, and honoring of yourself. Trust that we always make choices with the best intentions. Then thread the takeaways together to see how the story of your life has unfolded, up to now.
If you’re facing a turning point right now, you are not alone. Others advise us to reach out to family and friends and therapists for support; accept the uncertainty and face our feelings of fear and overwhelm; slow down and soak in the moments; and focus on “being” rather than “doing.” This mindfulness keeps us in the moment, helps us let go of our expectations, and avoids the catastrophizing and anxiety that can ensue when we anticipate an unknown future or outcome. Sometimes, we all need reminders of our inner strength, supportive network, and resilience to overcome and find meaning in adversity. The turning points in our life already taught us. We just need to find them.
Blessings to you as you rediscover your strengths.