Surviving Your Crises, Reviving Your Dreams

© 1994 Donald E. Watson

Mills & Sanderson, Publishers, Bedford, MA


Crises are like great earthquakes. They shake our stable foundations, undermining our sense of security, and create new vistas, invalidating our familiar perceptions. These upheavals twist our smooth landscape into rugged peaks and valleys, ushering chaos--and sometimes despair--into our formerly routine lives. And they confront us with new challenges, rendering useless our customary habits.

We welcome some crises. A new romance, a new child, or a new home are agreeable crises, and we greet them with smiles on our faces, enthusiasm in our voices, and hopeful optimism in our hearts. Such crises offer an obvious abundance of opportunities to enrich our lives.

Often, however, crises are unwanted, unplanned, and unforeseen: a broken romance, a child's illness, a home destroyed by fire. Like agreeable crises, these also offer new opportunities. However, if we meet disagreeable crises with frowns, passivity, and hopeless pessimism, we become immobilized. This disability compels us to waste our new opportunities for enhancing our lives.

In the immediate aftermath of unwanted crises, it is difficult to imagine their potential benefits. Yet, in destroying our familiar landscapes, they expose new territories--new opportunities to enrich and renew our lives. These new treasures often lie in distant peaks, and to secure them, we must first traverse the lowlands. Then, we can reach the summits beyond the valleys.

Two sources of lessons shape our attitudes toward crises: our personal experiences and our society. Our personal experiences include our own past crises and those of our families. Our social lessons include histories, myths, folklore, and superstitions concerning misfortune. Some of attitudes created by these lessons strengthen us, but others undermine our ability to adapt to change.

This book shows how to prepare for crises by mastering the skills of life-navigation in unpredictable and treacherous conditions. It focusses primarily on the most frequent and most consequential turbulence we encounter: major losses.

Major losses are injuries to our souls. They disrupt our moods, our health, our habits, our relationships, and our dreams for the future. The damage caused by our losses can be so extensive that we often feel that we can't survive. In fact, not only can we survive them, but we can thrive after our losses--provided we use the opportunities to establish new destinations and to change our courses to reach them. To help us thrive, nature provides us with a gift for healing, a process termed grieving.

Our ability to grieve is tainted by a false reputation in our society. Rather than being seen as a gift of nature, it is deemed an affliction. Rather than being recognized as a healing force, it is labeled a weakness.

In fact, healing from our injuries allows us, not merely to accept our losses, but to adapt to challenging events, and to proceed in our lives much stronger than we were before. Despite this, our society teaches us to waste our opportunities by sabotaging our ability to heal. If we follow these lessons, we can compound our original losses by losing our greatest treasures--our hope, our health, and our dreams for the future.

Our society teaches us five false beliefs concerning grieving: that grieving means constant suffering; that sadness is the main emotion of grieving; that grieving is reserved for the deaths of loved ones; that grieving proceeds in stages or phases; and that we grieve only for harmful losses. Learning how to heal after a loss begins with correcting these misconceptions.

First, grieving is not constant suffering. On the contrary, failing to grieve causes constant suffering--depression, anxiety, physical illness, passive helplessness, fear of success, withdrawal from healthy relationships, and self-destructive habits such as abusing alcohol and other drugs. It is true that healing is associated with pain, but this pain is temporary. To prevent endless pain, we must accept the temporary pain, and allow the healing process to proceed.

Second, anger, not sadness, is the primary emotion of grieving. It is also the most important resource we possess for healing. Yet, our society teaches us to waste this rich resource. That's why learning to use our anger well is essential to our healing. Further, trying to hide our anger often produces guilt, another serious impediment to healing.

Third, grieving is not reserved for mourning the death of a loved one. In fact, grieving allows us to heal after any loss, and we suffer losses every day. Each day, we lose a day of life--a day of youthfulness, with its energy, optimism, and opportunities. Also, on any given day, we can lose a job, a marriage, a relationship, a treasured object, or a dream for the future. Or we might lose our health, faith, money, freedom, social status, or self-esteem. By healing from each of these losses, we can regain our bearings, renew our commitment to life, and restore our wholeness.

Fourth, we must prepare for the future, not only after unwanted losses, but after beneficial losses as well--unrewarding jobs, harmful habits, or oppressive relationships. If we know that we can heal after our losses, we can gladly give up such harmful things, and reach for our new treasures. On the other hand, if we do not heal after such losses, we will cling to things that harm us, and forego realizing our new opportunities.

Fifth, we don't experience "stages" of grieving. Instead, we experience symptoms: anger, guilt, sadness, preoccupation with the loss. Stages are abstract theoretical ideas, and focussing on them can delay or prevent healing. Moreover, the symptoms associated with healing don't occur in a regular order. Instead, they can be triggered by memories, additional losses, or other events.

It would be wonderful if we could march step by step through well-defined stages of grieving to reach our new destinations. But this rarely occurs. Instead, we often trip on false beliefs, and apply inappropriate mental habits that interfere with our healing. That's because we develop and practice our mental skills, not to manage crises, but to live routinely. And the mental habits that serve us well in our everyday lives are likely to fail us miserably during critical times. After all, roller-skating skills are useless for rock-climbing.

Coping with crises requires us to use well-honed mental skills that are sharp and fitted to the job at hand. Unfortunately, we often resort to using dull, warped, or obsolete tools during crises: Denial, depression, alcohol abuse, and obsolete mental habits can dull or warp our perception. Ignorance, superstition, and false beliefs can also distort our responses to the real world. Learning the skills of successful living begins with correcting these misconceptions.

Each crisis in our lives challenges us to perform four tasks: to face reality, to reorganize our view of the world, to plan our next strategy, and to undertake the actions necessary to realize these plans. Successful people possess the skills to accomplish these tasks automatically. To succeed in life, others must make habits of these skills.

Healing skills are mental skills. That's why learning how to heal means practicing new ways of thinking about problems. Unfortunately, however, new ways of thinking often collide with old ways of thinking. That is, our existing mental skills include habits and beliefs that interfere with grieving. For this reason, we must unlearn old ideas, which often include cherished--but harmful--habits, beliefs, and superstitions.

For many people, letting go of obsolete ways of thinking is the most difficult aspect of coping with crises. Yet, knowing how to let go of excess mental baggage is itself a necessary skill for successful living. That's why learning the skills of healing is itself a healing process.

This book teaches you how to release your grip on your harmful attitudes about healing, and illustrates its lessons with my own story and the stories of others. In reading these stories, you will be comforted by knowing that you are not alone. More importantly, by identifying with these people, you can learn by their experiences. By reading this book, you can help yourself learn to welcome grieving as nature's gift. In the process, you can learn to live your life more fully.