I received some kick-in-the-gut news recently that a friend has cancer. This wasn’t long after I heard some oh-crap-what-is-he-going-to-do personal financial news from another friend. I don’t do well with health or financial crises. Good health is all my family and I have known so managing through sickness and death is not on my resume—I panic when I consider how unprepared I am for death and illness.

Losing money, however, is on my list of core competencies, so Post Traumatic Stress Disorder kicks in when I hear of people hitting financial rough patches. I know they’ll make it through this rough patch, yet I have flashbacks and can’t help picturing my friend and his family living in an aqueduct in downtown Denver.

What do you do when you or someone close to you experiences a crisis? Your reaction will tell you a lot about your view of the world, yourself and your spiritual life.

From Tower Building to Facing Your Limitations

I heard a Zen Master once say, “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” Indeed, the older I get the more I realize pain is an integral part of the human experience. Loved ones get sick, friends lose their jobs or financial safety nets, parents lose their mental or physical health, to name just a few of the curve balls that can and will get thrown at you.

There was a time in your life (and you may be fortunate enough to be still in that period) when you thought you could hit almost any kind of pitch life threw at you. You were in the tower-building stage of your life—building your career, balance sheet and list of accomplishments. Somewhere around forty or fifty, all that started to change.

If you’re over forty you know what I’m talking about. There comes a time when you begin to realize you can’t keep building and rebuilding your monuments. Problem solving doesn’t yield the results it once did—you have limitations.

Problem solving skills don’t help much when your marriage collapses, your child has special needs, your parents get sick, or your career or finances blow up. Quick thinking and hard work will not help in times when you realize that what excited you in the past (like your job or marriage) now leaves you feeling flat. What were problems in the first half of your life have become complicated dilemmas that you will face in the second half of your life.

When crisis hits or when you hit your period of limitations you can chose one of three perspectives:

  1. Return to tower-building mode. This is where you kick yourself for being in a bad situation and attempt to “fix” things as you did when you hit bumps in the road when you were thirty. In the fix-it mode, you are determined to push through this “phase” of life and move on. You commit to finding a new mate, a new doctor, a new deal, or the right combination of medications. This mode often leads to finding ways to escape from your circumstances.
  2. Become disillusioned. With this perspective, you resign yourself to live with the attitude that “life’s a bitch, then you die.” You may find yourself always in the right and blaming hospitals, employers and God for your circumstances. This way of thinking only adds to or anchors your pain. This is what the Zen Master meant when she said, “suffering is optional.”
  3. Let Go. High-achievers resist letting go, as they want nothing to do with anything that looks like being passive or giving up. To let go is to stop fighting reality and trying to fix what can’t be fixed. Letting go is acknowledging that there are many forces at play; that you can’t fix everything; and that the purpose of your life is to learn, not accomplish. This perspective means you let go of your attachment to the tower you constructed in the first third of your life.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, letting go allows you to transform your crises and leads to greater peace and understanding. Letting go also leads to maturity and wisdom that will help you deepen your relationships, rediscover your passion and take your leadership to another level. Letting go fosters patience and helps you to see the big picture.

Three Strategies for Letting Go

Below are three approaches to letting go in order to find calm during a storm, heal from pain or increase your leadership maturity:

  1. Remind yourself you are not in control. Consider how many events have to occur in just a certain way to produce any outcome. In spite of your smarts and determination, there are greater forces than you at play. The more time you spend trying to fight reality, the more time you will spend being disillusioned or delusional. The more you acknowledge the intangible mysteries of life, the greater is your connection to them.
  2. Move toward your pain. Resist your innate urge to seek comfort. Find people who will allow you to fully express and experience your pain. This means talking about and embracing your emotions and hurt instead of running from them. Begin this process by taking an inventory of the ways you run from your hurt (getting busy, working, drinking, complaining, blaming, shopping, etc.). Then, choose more healing and fulfilling strategies for dealing with your pain (small groups, accountability partners, meditation, prayer, sharing feelings with loved ones, hiring a coach, and so on.).
  3. Be foolish. I have a dear friend who is 75. His mantra is, “I have nothing to prove and nothing to lose—I’m dangerous!” I’m inspired by this way of being, especially since I spend most of my day worrying about what others think of me. I’m at my best when I stop pretending I have it all together. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone stopped pretending life is great? Pain is inevitable. Take the risk to be vulnerable. Your relationships, leadership and health will be transformed.

Each of these strategies is vulnerable, yet authenticity and maturity require you to be vulnerable. Vulnerability will help you transform your pain into a new aliveness and humility, not turn it into more suffering. Your biggest gift is inside your biggest crisis.

What area of your life would benefit most from you letting go?

I’d love to hear your stories about how a crisis has transformed your life.