There are several trite sayings often used when unfortunate things happen in our lives or in the world. Here are a few:
• When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
• It’s all for the best.
Finally, my personal favorite:
• It all works out in the end and if it hasn’t worked out, then it’s not the end.
Overused sayings aside, life does happen and sometimes it happens with a vengeance — as the world is currently experiencing.
The same upending of life may be real in our own lives. As we grow in years and wisdom, we think we have life all figured out. We know what the coming years will look like and we plan accordingly. There might be intentions for remaining in the professional role we have held for years or we may aim for making a planned exit. We develop grand plans with our spouse/partner of many years for activities long put on the back burner.
Education complete, check. Personal relationships on firm footing, check. Children educated and launched, check. Professional life developed and fulfilling, check. Financial security, check. All is in order. Until it’s not. Situations can upset the apple cart of life, and then smash it into a million pieces, flinging the debris to the winds leaving only dust at our feet.
I admit to a similar path. In my professional life, I grew a business from a two- person firm into a large, successful national presence with offices in several states. Children were grown and flourishing in their careers and personal lives. There was no intention of retirement although as a serial planner, I had set aside funds for the “just in case” times. I loved every day of my work life and jokingly said that I would only leave my office when I was carried out after a productive full day. I truly loved the people with whom I worked.
My husband expressed similar feelings about his career as an academic and researcher, although he too had been tucking away funds in a mandatory pension fund for years. Thank goodness it was mandatory as he felt he was immortal and wouldn’t have done it otherwise. He excelled in his field, was doing well in his university career and active in outside consulting, enjoying achievements and honors at the top of the nerdy heap. We both lived our dream lives.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for him and a new chief executive who didn’t like me or my “soft” ideas arrived in our lives at the same time. S@#t certainly happens. Or does it? Was the universe letting us know that although our plans had been carefully and well crafted, this path was not to be trod?
Things happen. We plan, we create and then reality of a different sort sets in. Most recently the COVID-19 pandemic has set the world and our individual realities on a new path. Travel and events are suspended, churches and venues of all sizes shut their doors, small businesses and their staff are greatly affected, the stock market is on a roller-coaster ride of epic proportion, people have been asked to hunker down at home, and there has been a shopping frenzy born of extreme anxiety. Individually, each event is enough to make us run for the hills, but collectively the current situation is causing unprecedented anxiety. Moreover, not being able to interact with fellow humans is having an impact on our mental health. What do we do? How do we cope with this unexpected turn of events?
Although individually, each small speed bump we encounter in life typically results in quick corrective action, some of the more serious events cause emotional stress requiring a more thoughtful approach.
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This isn’t a simple matter of making lemonade out of the lemons. This takes some deep effort and work. Life can create a path that is more circuitous than straight. Our focus should not be ruminating on what went wrong, who’s to blame and how catastrophic the situation. Instead we should consider where the opportunities lie and where we might find Plan B. This can lead us toward our greater good where our essential, true selves dwell.
If we ever believe that we are in total control of our lives, there is a lesson to be learned. We are not.
Whether or not you are religious, spiritual or a pragmatic realist, research and anecdotal evidence leads us to understand that there is an order to all of life. Mysteries of the universe are a part of a complete and orderly system. Just as an acorn will always develop into an oak tree and never a peach tree, just as gravity always keeps us from flying off our planet into the cosmos and just as seasons predictably follow seasons, there is a perfect order to things. And that order includes each of us living out a purpose (some even call it a divine purpose) while we are on earth.
Occasionally, what we plan and tease into reality simply isn’t our purpose. The universe has other plans for us. We can fight it or we can lean in to acceptance to find the bonus prize in the midst of the chaos. For my husband, a new reality was an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and for me it was a boot in the professional tushy which ultimately directed me to a better path as a teller of stories through writing, photography and speaking.
At the time of my personal awakening, throwing objects and stomping feet seemed in order. There were choices to be made (or at least for me, my husband was at the mercy of his nasty medical condition). After carefully analyzing our combined financial status, I knew that I could choose to love and embrace the decision to step away from my professional life. But then what? Taking the time and energy to build a “second act” career after 35 years of business life was not easy. My logical mind immediately sought to create an exit strategy and plan for the future. I could not foresee the feeling of emptiness that might come with leaving the company I had founded and the colleagues that I adored. But I felt deeply that in order for a greater good to appear (yes, I knew my real purpose in life was out there patiently waiting for me to say, yes, come on in) I had to release the dependence on MY plan, the way I thought things must play out.
So, the release and the emptiness came first. This immediate grief was only a precursor to the joy that was to follow.
Within a year of leaving my beloved company, it became apparent that my husband could no longer safely be cared for at home. The family chose a lovely community nearby where he would be safe and secure as his dementia advanced. Over time, he has become a valued member of the community, appreciated for his kindness and consideration of other residents and staff. His striving for acclaim in the scientific community has disappeared and the gentleman who is left is gentle, sweet and content in his predictable new reality. My emerging new life as a former corporate executive included plenty of space (physically and metaphorically) for my purpose to arrive.
And arrive it did. Through time spent in reflection, meditation (and prayer) my next act unfolded easily and confidently.
A second career had been waiting in the wings all my life. I was a writer and photographer from an early age, never actually giving space or credit to two practices that filled me with joy. Although heading up a growing business was the primary source of income for me, I always managed to incorporate my secret loves into my life. Whether working as garden editor and writer for a home and garden magazine, as consultant and on-air talent for a local TV station, as photographer for all awards submissions for my company all in my “spare time,” I lived out my closet passions which remained secondary to the business life I had chosen. At least until I allowed myself the freedom to be me.
Lesson learned? Although this personal journey over the past three years may not be a traditional lemons-to-lemonade saga, I am aware of the importance of being open to the possibility of change. The power of a greater good being at work is not hocus-pocus, it is truth which is as real as the law of gravity.
Knowing that there are always positive outcomes and gifts awaiting us as we live through the unplanned, the unknown and the shift in our reality. After all, everything is in divine order whether it is a response to an event happening individually or collectively to our country or world. By letting go of the unworkable Plan A, we allow space for the appearance of the better Plan B which has just been patiently waiting for our acceptance and embrace.
Deborah Cole is an award-winning photographer and author of “Letting Go: How Less Becomes More.”
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