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Dancing through the Chaos

November is National Gratitude Month – which makes sense, given it’s Thanksgiving month.  Stretching out a focus on gratitude for the full month could only be a good thing. 

November’s also Native American Heritage Month, Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and National Diabetes Month. 

But there’s more – it’s also officially Banana Pudding Lovers Month, Peanut Butter Lovers Month, and National Raisin Bread Month. In fact, November’s been declared awareness month for about 30 different things. 

All these things are worthy of awareness and attention (although, personally, I could do without the raisins). 

But it can get a little overwhelming. 

Grouch Marx is known to have said: ” I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”

So let’s set aside all the worthy topics for a moment. What is this month of November 2021, without all the official designations?

Well, this year, November’s the start of a holiday season after a long, stressful summer of wildfires and flooding. 

It’s the start of the second holiday season during a global pandemic. We’re all more than weary of it and would like to get back to normal. But even with the vaccines and improved treatments for COVID-19, normalcy hasn’t returned yet.

Looking toward the holiday celebrations always brings both excitement and trepidation. But this year, there’s more social and political polarization than ever – often dividing families more rigidly than ever before.

That’s all on top of the usual stresses and, for many, sadness that this time of year can bring.

So if you’re feeling tired and anxious this November, maybe even depressed, that would be perfectly normal under the circumstances, and nothing to be ashamed about. 

“This too shall pass” might be one of the oldest pieces of wisdom there is. There’s no certainty about where or when the phrase originated, but it may have been said to, or by, King Solomon during his reign 3,000 years ago. 

According to one story, a sultan asked Solomon to devise a sentence – short enough to inscribe on the band of a ring – that would be true and helpful in both good and bad times. 

In another version, Solomon is searching for a cure for depression. He asks his wise men for help, and after long deliberation, they come up with “this too shall pass” and suggest he have the words inscribed on a ring to wear at all times. It reminds him to keep bad times in perspective and to appreciate the good times.

In 2021, “this too shall pass” has been doing triple duty. But it feels different now, a little less effective because it’s coming up against the idea of a “new normal” – one that’s become more and more uncomfortable.

The idea of wildfires, heat waves, drought, and flooding becoming regular occurrences.

The notion that the coronavirus is going to stay with us as an endemic disease, and we’ll live with it for the rest of our lives, the way we live with the flu. Vaccinations possibly becoming an annual event – along with, it seems dire controversies over whether to get them. 

Increasing economic uncertainty, civil unrest, rancorous disputes around the dinner table … all these events and situations that used to be, if not rare, at least out of the ordinary, are now becoming familiar. Everyday. Normal.

And we have to adapt because it seems there’s not much else to do. To learn to live with this new normal, and make the best of it. 

There are times when all you can do is buckle down, adapt, and ride it out. 

Ironically (if that’s the right word), “this too shall pass” doesn’t promise an end to change. Just the opposite. It’s saying change happens and has always happened, and always will. “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” It promises that everything will pass away, eventually – except change itself.

The fear is that change itself is becoming so overwhelming and negative – chaos. “This too shall pass” is starting to sound like “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

But there’s another old saying: that in the Chinese written language, the symbol for chaos is a combination of “crisis” and “opportunity.” The chaos in the world today does present us with crises – that’s obvious – but also opportunities, that might not be so obvious. 

This idea might be a cliché, but as the great philosopher Brandon Sanderson points out when clichés become meaningful, they cease to be clichés. And in the world of 2021, making sense of chaos has become desperately meaningful. 

I’ve had more change in my life than most and can testify to the fact that opportunities come with change. In fact, in my experience, there have never been opportunities without change. 

And paradoxically, the best, most rewarding, and exciting opportunities have always been cloaked in despair – the times when I felt positive change just couldn’t happen, and life was only going to get worse, if anything, from there. Like it can feel sometimes now.

The feeling I mentioned before, that the world’s current level of chaos might be permanent and there’s no end in sight: that’s despair. It’s in that kind of darkness, I’ve discovered, that you learn to open your eyes wider. You learn to look for alternatives that hadn’t appeared before and to take leaps that seemed impossible before. 

It’s when the rug gets pulled out from under you that you learn to dance. 

How can natural disasters, the pandemic, political strife, and family division be anything but painful, threatening, and terrifying? By seeing the opportunities they offer. Seeing them as prompts to positive change, on both personal and societal levels.

In other words, actively using them as openings to make things better.

Jack Canfield, the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” guy, suggests thinking about crisis in terms of the formula E + R = O. “E” is the event that presents itself, the crisis/opportunity. “R” stands for Response – how you actively choose to behave in regard to the crisis. “O” stands for Outcome. E + R = O means the event doesn’t determine the outcome – how you respond to it does. 

The response might not be an outward action. Sometimes outward action isn’t possible, practical, or helpful. The response might be to examine and possibly change your attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, or priorities. This might be “foxhole faith” – the saying goes that there are no atheists in a foxhole – but intense experiences that drive people to reconsider their beliefs can prompt genuine searching and insight. 

And those new beliefs can completely change how you interpret a situation.

Isolation during Covid, for example, is a negative if you feel you can’t be alone comfortably. Turning that belief around transforms isolation into solitude: precious downtime to make art or music, read, or just be quiet. 

The response to a crisis might be to expand your notions of who you are, what you can do, and what’s possible to you. This might lead to making meaningful changes in relationships: setting long-needed boundaries, opening up communication, or even ending a relationship when that’s become the painfully obvious best solution. 

The response might be to see a crisis as the ultimate result of long-standing habits and attitudes that needed to change a long time ago – and finally gather the resolve to change them. These habits and attitudes could be personal or community-wide – calling for community-wide change. 

A loss or seeming calamity often turns out, in retrospect, to be a significant turning point toward a better life. Despair turns out to be the darkness before the theater curtain rises and shows you a whole new world.

I don’t know how things will turn out. I know I’ve never gone wrong by looking for silver linings and trusting in unexpected, wonderful reversals.

I think we’re all going to be okay, in the end. 

So I’m going to relax as best I can, pray, and do what I can, within my power, to make this holiday season, and the coming years, beautiful and fruitful – if not as comfortable as I might like. 

I have a hunch that, when we look back from the future, we’ll see lots to be grateful for.


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