This article first appeared in Happify.
Most of the time, as we’re speeding along through our lives, ticking off the milestones we’ve set for ourselves, we consider any obstacles to be bad news. Who wants to deal with problems when we’ve got our eyes on a goal. But if there’s one thing this year has taught us, it’s that even the best laid plans are subject to the whims of fate. But not every roadblock is bad news—especially when it can give us a chance to reassess whether our past plans fit our current reality and future goals.
To take advantage of a setback, rather than feel victimized by it, we must willingly give up the path we’ve been on if and when we can no longer continue the way we were going. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy. The trajectory we are on often defines our identity and helps us make sense of our lives. It’s natural to want to hang on to it, or to fight to get it back. And yet, control is never a sustainable long-term strategy. If anything, the pandemic has shown us that we never had any control. In the words of author Elizabeth Gilbert: All we had was fear.
When our linear, everyday lives are thrown off course, we need to connect to our non-linear, spiritual lives that hold many of the answers we seek. We’re all going through a transition. Assessing where we are in the phases that author Bruce Feiler defines in his book Life Is in the Transitions can be of great help.
The one thing that all transitions have in common is an ending. The end of a relationship, a job, a plan, or a dream. My youngest daughter is struggling with the fact that she won’t be able to go to her selected school because our plans have had to change. What she needs is compassion, and the permission to be with her emotions, without feeding them. This is a fine art, and one that I haven’t mastered fully. Her suffering both pains me and propels me to remind her of the scale of loss and grief in the world. It can sometimes be difficult to trust that we all have an innate wisdom that emerges when we accept our lived experience with unconditional love. If you’re struggling to let go of what once was, imagine that you have your older, wiser self by your side. What will he or she say? Journal if you find it helpful. Or pray, chant, dance—whatever you find cathartic. And be mindful of who you surround yourself with. Those who are overly helpful are often those who don’t have the courage to sit with their own emotions. Sadly, that’s most of us.
With what you had now gone, how do you fill the emptiness of your days with something that feels meaningful? Novelist and professor at NYU Zadie Smith writes that we do so through what we surround ourselves with—be it habits, routines, or belongings. Think about what you’ve surrounded yourself with, both in your mind—the thoughts and mindsets—and in your life. Is it helpful? What do you need to let go of? When her son left home for college, a client realized that expecting him to call her every day was not only limiting his growth, but it was also stopping her from moving on. The only way you make space for a new way of being to emerge is by letting go of what’s not working anymore. If you don’t know where to begin, start by decluttering a drawer, your closet, or a room. As you physically clear your space, you’ll silently be helping your mind connect to the concept of freeing up space, as well.
You’ve honored your emotions. You’ve shed some of the unhelpful clutter you’ve been amassing over the years, or even decades. Emotionally and cognitively, you’re far freer to explore both those parts of yourself you left on the back burner of your life and the opportunities that the world is bringing to light. For some of you, it may mean taking up creative passions you once enjoyed. For others, it may mean engaging in causes you never found time for in your earlier life. For my daughter, it meant focusing on what she gains by going to a new school, and using her artistic talents to enliven her spirits.
How will you reinvigorate yourself as you move through this difficult time? My favorite strategy is to think back to the little child you once were. The curious, creative, joyful being with an infectious laugh and an ability to chase butterflies for hours, or dance in the rain without a worry in the world. Be a little more like her. Yes, you’ll feel vulnerable and awkward. Transitions are messy. They take courage and patience. After all, your mind is reorganizing itself. Give it permission to do so.