What to Do When Life Takes an Unexpected Turn — As It Just Has
I’ll start with this quotation from spiritual teacher Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
We’re in the midst of a change in our lives that’s so profound, none of us could have imagined it a year ago. So, yes, life isn’t going our way. But when you think about your life, have your plans ever worked out exactly as you’d hoped without unexpected changes or complications? My life has been full of unexpected changes, especially the one I often write about here: becoming chronically ill almost 20 years ago and having to give up my beloved career as a result.
When these types of drastic changes happen, many people go straight to blame — either self-blame (as if they should be able to control every aspect of how life unfolds) or blaming others.
Several years ago, my daughter told me about a wedding she attended at which the folding chairs rented by the bride’s mother never arrived at the venue. As time for the ceremony grew closer and closer, there were no chairs for the guests to sit in. My daughter told me that the guests were standing around, getting restless.
In the spur of the moment, the bride’s mother made a crucial decision. Instead of focusing her attention on blaming herself for the chairs not arriving or blaming the rental company, she made it appear as if “no chairs” was the plan all along.
She found a few chairs to accommodate guests who were unable to stand for a long time, and had everyone gather around as the bride and groom descended a spiral staircase to the sound of the wedding march. My daughter said it was a unique experience because it made the guests feel as if they were a part of the wedding procession.
I share this story because, in my experience, blame serves little or no purpose. That said, evaluating other people’s performance and reflecting on your own behavior is not the same as blame. For example, if a business lets you down without a reasonable excuse, you might not want to use its services again. Same with a doctor. By the same token, evaluating your own behavior is not the same as self-blame. For example, based on an experience, you might decide it would be skillful in the future to check references before hiring a professional to do something for you.
My point is that spending your time blaming yourself and others is a distraction that keeps you from skillful and creative problem-solving, especially at a crucial moment.
I learned about blame in a most unusual way from Zen teacher, Robert Aitken. In his book, The Mind of Clover, he begins the chapter titled “Eating the Blame” with this Zen story:
At the monastery of Fugai Ekun, ceremonies delayed preparation of the noon meal one day and when they were over, the cook took up his sickle and hurriedly gathered vegetables from the garden. In his haste, he lopped off part of a snake, and, unaware that he had done so, threw it into the soup pot with the vegetables.
At the meal, the monks thought they had never tasted such delicious soup, but the Roshi [the senior teacher] himself found something remarkable in his bowl. Summoning the cook, he held up the head of the snake, and demanded, “What is this?”
The cook took the morsel, saying, “Oh thank you Roshi,” and immediately ate it.
Robert Aitken’s commentary to this story asks: “How do you handle a challenge?” He suggests that there are two options. One is to defend — by accusing the other or making an excuse for yourself — and the other is to dance.
Robert Aitken said the cook in the Zen story danced at a crucial moment. Aitken called it “eating the blame.” The mother of the bride at the “wedding with no chairs” did the same thing when her plans went awry. Brava to her — and at least she didn’t have to eat a snake’s head!
So, here we are in this pandemic where, metaphorically, all the “wedding chairs” have been taken away from us. If we try to sit anyway, we’ll fall and maybe hurt ourselves. Again, metaphorically, the alternative is to dance, a reference to both the Alan Watts quotation and the Robert Aitken story.
For me, this has meant finding things to do that are creative (see the watercolor painting above), that are relaxing and enjoyable (I’ve discovered jigsaw puzzles), and that help others (I’ve been making greeting cards out of those small watercolor paintings and giving them to people in exchange for asking them to make a donation to a charity).
I recognize that my suggestions will be harder for people who are raising children, caregiving for someone, or short on resources. Still, there are ways to “dance” if you make a commitment to yourself to find ways to make the best of this major life-changing event.
I offered the two stories in this piece as a way to help you loosen your thinking, so you can find a measure of equanimity, of peace, of calm acceptance (whichever words resonate with you) despite this difficult time.