Much of my work involves helping people and organizations (which is really just a group of people) through times of change and transition. When you think about how ceaseless and inescapable change is, it’s helpful to see how almost anything in life can serve as a metaphor or grid with which to understand how we experience change.
For example, I recently read the book “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande. Gawande talks in the book about how to help people who are struggling to accept and manage their grief about aging— how they fight against the passage of time and struggle to control whatever they possibly can.
Some of his comments about grief resonated so strongly with me regarding people in any kind of transition. I don’t think, in general, that our (American, Western) culture is very good at grieving, and I wonder if Christians are the worst at it of all. There was much to consider in his gentle suggestions to pause, to take time and not race through decisions about later in life, but to reflect on what the passage of time means to a person.
There are probably many theories about why we avoid and rush through considerations about the ends of our days. Perhaps it’s something related to our preference for focusing on the glass half-full, making forward progress, Puritanical bootstrapping, commitment to happy endings, raging denial……..the list goes on. Still, I’ve been compelled by how universal the struggle with grief and change is, and how overriding the desire to push through the pain at highest possible speed.
Gawande talks about asking five questions of the people who are struggling with accepting the loss of their health:
1) What do you understand your prognosis to be?
2) What are your goals/hopes/most important commitments, going forward?
3) What kinds of trade-offs are you willing to make– how much are you willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable to you?
4) How do you want to spend your time if your health worsens?
5) Who do you want to make decisions if you can’t?
It occurs to me that, with a little editing, these are great questions to ask people undergoing any kind of change and transition.
The answers to these questions– and ultimately any conversation about the future and how it is perceived– can help identify and clarify what the individual in question is really wrestling with; the source of their emotional pain or angst about the change or process. From there, we can move forward with powerful choices, fueled by compassion and courage.