By Dora E. McQuaid—
It is August and I am briefly home, gathering my energy before my next round of travel to speak and teach. While catching my breath, I’ve had some time to sit with the unfolding of 2017 so far, a year that seems to have presented an ongoing series of challenges and confrontations in the lives of many of the people I know and with whom I interact for my work. Personally and collectively, it has been a tumultuous year that has left many of us questioning core values and beliefs, our commitments and actions, our intentions and hopes for ourselves and for the lives of the people around us. From politics to social constructs, the economy and our livelihoods, the systems that support us and do not support us, we seem to be a world in a process of great change, as well as a world in need of great change that might serve to better uplift us all.
As a woman deeply familiar with change and transformation, on both the personal and collective levels, I’m often approached by people both known and unknown to me, who are being confronted with the challenges of deep change that appear in their lives in a stunning array of forms. Illness, imploded relationships, the deaths of family members, friends, partners or lovers, job losses, betrayals, the ongoing impact of childhoods marked by abuse and/or neglect, experiences of violence, oppression, poverty, homelessness, war, natural disasters…the range of challenges sometimes seems endless, both to me and to the people who reach out to me for support, insight or resources. I often refer to these periods where our lives are so disrupted as to leave them, and sometimes ourselves within them, utterly unrecognizable to us as periods of Great Undoing. I’ve written and spoken extensively over the last twenty-five years about these periods of Great Undoing, from my personal experiences and from the sharing of many of the people whom I’ve had the honor to know both personally and professionally. As much as most of us would agree that the only constant in life is change, when that change announces its presence and its demands in our lives, we are often left initially devastated by its impact, questioning ourselves and our gods, reeling in the loss of firm footing and clear direction. Many of us respond with the question: Why is this happening to me? It’s a logical question in the face of a life that has been uprooted by the illogical. I’ve asked that question again and again, during the most pivotal periods of Great Undoing that I’ve experienced, often feeling victimized, powerless and frightened in the face of it. Why is this happening to me?
I asked it many years ago, in August heat and wind, while I ran from a life that was imploding behind me, while I ran for my life from an experience of violence that nearly killed me. Why is this happening to me? Somewhere along that running, I realized that I was running away and that if I kept running as I was, I would be running for the rest of my life from a truth that was waiting for me to turn and embrace it. Somewhere in the repeated asking of that question, Why is this happening to me? I heard another voice ask very clearly:
What if it is not happening TO you, Dora? What if it is happening FOR you?
That question literally stopped me in my tracks. It flipped my perception completely on the Great Undoing that I was in the middle of experiencing. That moment became the entry point into the life that I now live by creating a stream of resultant questions that allowed me to view my life and myself in a way that felt less like being victimized and more like being invited to grow and stretch into a better version of myself that was waiting for me. What if this is happening FOR me? If this Great Undoing is happening FOR me, what is possible within this moment? What opportunities exist that I can bring all of myself to exploring? What is being asked of me to face or develop or live into? I knew that my life as I had lived it up until that moment was done, was in the process of being Undone. Despite the grief and terror I was feeling, I was also beginning to feel the first wave of hope and curiosity and all of the possibilities they both presented. I knew that I could not change what had happened to deliver me to that moment, just as I also knew that how I defined myself moving forward could be based on the decisions I made in the face of that Undoing, and that those decisions would impact the life I created for myself beyond it.
I stopped running away right then. I decided to face my self and my history, to go back and fight for myself and for the life I believed I not only deserved but was available to me. I went through a process of intense grief, fear, anger, excitement and hope and I allowed myself to experience them all as part of my own healing. I wrote a lot and I ran a lot, too, reclaiming both my voice and my body. I asked myself again and again: What am I being asked to live into now? It was a galvanizing period of my life. I felt pared down and intensely alive and deeply determined to bring the wholeness of myself to it and to the life I wanted to create for myself, no matter how much I sometimes doubted my ability to actually do that. I didn’t know if I could heal, if I could reclaim myself, if I could live in the face of my history, but I knew that I had the opportunity to try.
There were many days when I simply did not recognize myself. It took me years to realize that I didn’t recognize myself because this Great Undoing invited me to become a different person than I had been before. The woman I was becoming was announcing herself in steps, and as she did, I discovered that I had more strength and courage, compassion and determination than I’d ever thought would be available to me. Over the years I‘ve said that if someone had told me then what both myself and my life would look like now, I would never have believed them. I allowed myself to live in steps, from question to question, from possibility into hope and action. And step by tenuous step, choice by careful choice, I grew into the woman I believe I was being asked to become. The Great Undoing, and the healing from it, was grueling and yet, I would not change a moment of the combined experience now because that experience led me to NOW.
I make no claim to have cornered any complete understanding of the reasons for the seemingly senseless tragedies or devastations that we are all asked to endure at some point in our lives. There are many perspectives that attempt to make logical these experiences that seem to defy all logic. As much as I’d like to understand why any of us suffer as we do, I’m more interested in exploring what we can bring to that suffering and what it both demands of AND offers to us.
2017 may well be a year of Great Undoing for many of us living it. Aside from the unfolding of this one year, we know that as long as we are walking the earth, change will be a constant. Sometimes that change will be so deeply transformative that it may present itself as a Great Undoing. If you find yourself or your life feeling undone, the following suggestions that I have used and offered to people may prove helpful to you as you navigate your experience.
- REMEMBER TO STAY IN THIS MOMENT, MOMENT BY MOMENT:
Many years ago, while I was healing from the greatest Undoing of my life, I would find myself reeling in a crushing array of both thoughts and emotions, terrified of both my past and my future, haunted at times into inaction by memory of all that had been lost and conjecture about all that might yet be coming. In the thick of one of those moments, I had a therapist ask me: What about right now? In THIS moment, right now, are you okay? The question stopped me in my tracks, once again, because I realized in that moment that I WAS actually okay. The past was already survived, the future had yet to clearly announce itself, but I was alive in THAT given moment and I was okay within it. I learned right then that every time I spun out about the past or the future, I could bring myself back to myself by asking: In THIS moment, am I okay?
And even if the answer to that question left me feeling as if I was NOT okay in that moment, then I could ask myself: Right now, what can I do that would help me to feel okay? Answering that question also brought me back to myself in the moment and allowed to me to focus my energy and attention on actual action that would help me to breathe into the moment I was in. Go for a walk, make a cup of tea, meditate, pray, call a friend who said they are there to support me, go outside and look at the sky, take a bath, write down five words that describe how I am feeling or five things for which I am grateful, read some poetry, listen to uplifting music for ten minutes while stretched out with my eyes closed and focus on only my breathing and the music itself, watch an inspirational TED Talk online…regardless of your actions, the point is to take action, to move into taking whatever small step might help you to feel okay in this moment as an act of self-care. Write your list of possible healthy actions when you are feeling okay and keep it within reach for when you need options to bring yourself back to the moment at hand.
- REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS
When we are deeply struggling, our feelings and thoughts can become overwhelming. Many of us try to blot out or deny those emotions and thoughts, or we judge ourselves for having them. I should be doing better than this. I shouldn’t feel this way for so long. I should have come up with a plan by now. Emotions and thoughts often persist, especially when we try to deny them or are judging ourselves for having them. Remember that regardless of how persistent either may be, you are NOT your thoughts or emotions. They are only one aspect of you in any given moment, but they are not you. You are merely the container for them. Your thoughts and emotions are valid because they are present, but they do not define you in your wholeness. If you can, allow your emotions and thoughts to be present and stay curious about them. Why am I feeling this way? Why am I thinking about this? Sometimes our emotions and our thoughts can lead us to our next steps and sometimes they can prevent us from taking those next steps. Sometimes experiencing them is simply part of our healing process. The point is to welcome them with acknowledgement and kindness and curiosity without having them replace our wholeness. If they become overwhelming, return to your list of doable actions above and take a step to bring yourself back to being okay in this moment. One small step can shift both thought and emotion. Staying curious and open to what we are feeling and thinking can lead to more clarity in this moment and offer the space for our next step to emerge and carry us into new possibilities.
- REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE IN A STEP-BY-STEP PROCESS
Process is defined as a series of actions, changes or functions that bring about a result. A Great Undoing is a process. Healing and rebuilding within or after a Great Undoing is also a process. The focus here is the word series, as in stages or phases or steps, one after another. One step cannot be taken before the step prior to it. We must go step-by-step through this experience, realizing that we may not even see all of the steps in this process ahead of us, or even two steps ahead of us. All we have is this moment and the step that is available to us within it. Being in the moment that we are in, taking the step before us is how we find our way to the next step until the process leads to a result. We may not even begin to see the end result when we take the first step, but if we surrender to and focus on the step in front of us, we will ultimately be delivered to a final result, which may be far more magnificent than we are capable of imagining.
I try to imagine that the step I am in as a little circle of light around my feet, where I am standing right now. The next step I am meant to take appears as the next circle of light right beyond my feet. If I can find the courage and faith to step into that next circle of light in front of me, I am making progress in the process, even when I stumble. Just like driving at night, I can’t see the entire road in front of me in my headlights, but I can see far enough to keep moving, trusting that the lights will lead me where I am meant to go. And just like the transformational process of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, I can only transform one stage at a time, one step at a time, imaging the possibilities ahead of me and trusting that the process itself is one that may deliver me to living again from a place of beauty, freedom and, ultimately, of renewed hope.
- REMEMBER TO CONSIDER THE POSSIBILITY THAT THIS PROCESS IS FOR YOU
I’ve worked with many people who have endured the seemingly unendurable and many of them have asked me what I myself have asked: Why is this happening to me? My answer to that question is always the same, and it is the same question I heard within me that long ago August that led to this moment I now inhabit: What if this is not happening TO you, but FOR you?
I believe that periods of Great Undoing can sometimes be viewed as the callings of the lives that want to live through us. I believe that Great Undoings can be invitations to live more fully into who we might be when we bring the entirety of ourselves to those experiences. I believe that Great Undoings, no matter how painful or transformative, may sometimes be the next step in our own individual process of BECOMING who we are meant to be. Yes, we are indelibly changed by experiences of Undoing, and those changes can be deeply painful. I believe that we can heal, just as I also believe that the healing changes us as much as the tragedy or challenge that demands that healing changes us. What if healing from the Great Undoing is an invitation to go beyond our history and to live more fully than we may have been able to before this experience? What if healing presents us with unexpected possibilities that may become new definitions of our unique selves to embody, new strengths and courage to claim, renewed hope to discover and explore? We may never be the same person we were before the Great Undoing, but if the Great Undoing is not against us but is FOR US, we may discover in the process of healing from it that we are far more than we ever imagined possible. We may discover ourselves to be far more courageous, resilient, compassionate, strong, daring, kind, trusting, adventurous, unique, joyful, loving, grateful, whole, empowered, hopeful, enlivened, and glorious than we ever believed we might be. Our Great Undoing holds the possibility of evolving us into our Great Becoming.
If you are experiencing a Great Undoing, bring the entirety of your wholeness to it, and stay curious within it, asking yourself step by step, phase by phase: How is this process holding and supporting me in my own evolution? At each step, ask: What is possible in this moment? What opportunities exist that I can bring all of myself to exploring? What is being asked of me to develop or live into? And then live into your own answers, step by focused step in the process of moving through the challenge of the Great Undoing into the possibilities of the Great Becoming.
We are a world that is both in a process of great change and in need of great change. We may not always be able to influence how that change announces itself in our lives, but I believe that when we choose to bring the wholeness of ourselves to its presence and calling, we are also choosing new possibilities and renewed hope. And our world, and each one of us alive within it, are all in need of each one of us bringing the best of ourselves forward with great hope.
All peace to you. Dora
© 2017 Dora E. McQuaid. All rights reserved.
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