The gift of crisis

Thirty-four days ago, my life was shaken by an earthquake of the metaphorical sort. A relationship I thought to be rock-solid showed significant signs of deterioration, perhaps beyond the point of saving. An email arrived in the late afternoon of August 1, 2016 that threatened my understanding of my place in this world. It threatened to take away those parts of my life I love most, and I never saw it coming.

I felt hopeless.
I felt out of control.
I felt panic rise up in my chest.
I reacted from that place of panic.
I yelled at the world, to anyone who would listen, a sharp and defiant: “NO!”

It’s in moments of crisis that we find out what really matters to us. Most days, we’re just bopping along in this world, keeping our head down and trying to muddle through as best we can. Well — maybe you don’t, but I certainly do. I focus on the thing or the person who’s yelling me right now. What student emails need answering? What classes need a teacher? What do I need to make for dinner? Again and again, echoing over and over, the question in my mind is simple: What do other people need from me?

What I lost sight of is the need for balance. Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others. It’s so commonplace it’s very nearly trite: You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Dismiss this fact, and you’re headed for a place that’s replete with burnout, hurt feelings, and … well, crisis.

I hit the crisis at full speed forward. It was the first day of my fall semester; I was on campus for my HR orientation, and I had spent the 30 days prior lamenting long and hard and loudly that my summer had gone by too quickly, that I’d accomplished too little, that I wasn’t ready for school to start. I worked too much over the summer… which is really easy to do when you live a life, as I do, where you’re always working too much.

I have a very hard time saying no, you see. I don’t like to feel like I’m letting others down. I crave their approval, their gratitude, their praise. I say yes in the hopes that I will become the most dependable person they know.

In the process, I lose myself. (I’ve talked about this before, specifically in the most terrifying thing I’ve ever written.) I become unmoored, drifting from one person’s needs to the next, one fire alarm to another.

Who gets left out? I do, of course. More importantly, though, the ones who get most left out are those who need me, but who don’t consistently raise their voices to ask for my time and energy. They stand by, silently appreciating my commitment to others, perhaps not even recognizing that my lack of energy and engagement is gnawing away at the cartilage making our relationship joints move more smoothly. And then, something happens — and snap! The whole thing breaks.

It broke.
I broke.
I nearly lost everything that matters.

It was a humbling week, that first week of August. I had to own up to my lack of presence. I had to admit that I was prioritizing things that, in retrospect, aren’t actually all that important to me.

I decided to declutter my life. I gave up two classes. I cut back to almost zero my hours at my longest-running job (10+ years now!). I promised to make time and space for those things that matter. I spoke out from a place of love, from a place made possible by demanding free time for myself and others. I cleared away some mental clutter. I reduced the emotional demands. And I felt … renewed. Free. At peace.

This passage from Glennon Doyle Melton’s insanely good book, Carry On, Warrior, resonates with what happened to me last month:

You have been offered the gift of crisis. As Kathleen Norris reminds us, the Greek root of the word crisis is “to sift,” as in to shake out the excesses and leave only what’s important. That’s what crises do. They shake things up until we are forced to hold on to only what matters most. The rest falls away.

The rest fell away, and I’m left with a renewed appreciation for the most important things in my life. I am so filled with love, with gratitude, with peace.

Sometimes, we need a little crisis to let the rest fall away. I was offered the gift of crisis, and I snatched it up … cautiously at first, with gusto eventually.

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