The Three Stages Of Change
It is inevitable — Change. It’s one thing that everyone has an opinion on. You either love it or hate it. Still, there is no avoiding it, so how do we work through change? How do we traverse from the world we once knew, to the reinvented world that is ahead of us? Of course, we are not talking about how to choose a new set of drapes for your windows or whether you should go with Ford or Chevy for your next pickup truck (since everyone knows the Toyota Tundra is the right choice anyways). There will come a time when you are faced with a hardship, a time of suffering, a mistake or a loss that will turn your world upside down. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Yet, so many traverse these seasons of life in unhealthy ways. They turn toward substance abuse, unwholesome relationships, or overworking to deal with what feels like a crumbling world. In a very real sense, their world is crumbling, but not in the way they might think. It’s not the complete destruction of your life — just life as they know it.
Psychologists and others in the social sciences have made significant headway in understanding the human mind and the way we live out of our woundedness. We are not, by the grace of God, forced to be stuck in our pain though. The world is full of stories where people and communities are forced to reimagine their world. Think of New York on 9/11 or New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit. The world they knew was suddenly fragmented with distrust and disarray. What would they do now? The whole country, and especially those immediately impacted by these tragedies, were forced to ask hard questions about life itself. Is this my new world? New Yorkers living in the shadow of fear that another attack may be just around the corner. How will we get beyond this? The people of New Orleans feeling so vulnerable. Even if we rebuild, will our homes just be swept back out to sea again?
And then there are countless stories of individuals to face similar situations that dismantle their worlds. The doctor’s visit that confirms the suspicion of cancer — a prognosis of only a few more months to live. Even those will be filled with treatments and checkups. What will this mean for their family? Or how about the family torn apart by divorce through the unfaithfulness of a spouse? How will the betrayed partner heal from such a heartbreak? How will the unfaithful partner live with the destruction they have left in the wake of their choices? How will the children learn to trust others when their most important relationship has seen the schism of dishonesty? So many more examples could be made, but they all share the same quality. Each has a rhythm of life that has been “their own,” but is now shattered. They are faced with the daunting reality of what is now in front of them. Will they pick up the pieces, or perpetually live in the broken situation that was handed to them. Going back to “the way things used to be” is not an option. Even a marriage that is restored or a cancerous body that goes into remission is not “what is was.” It is different altogether. This is the process of orientation > disorientation > reorientation. This is the process we must understand — and embrace — if change in our lives and our communities is possible.
The stage so many of us find ourselves in, is the stage of orientation. It is our norm. It is the daily routine that essentially meets our expectations. It is the kind of reality that produces the response, “it was just another day.” Nothing flashy. Nothing essentially new. Nothing to challenge the life that you have built thus far. Sure, there may be some changes like a raise or the purchase of a home, but these still fit into the world you have constructed. They meet your dreams, anticipations, and expectations. In other words, it is the good life.
“Tom is a white-collar worker who sells insurance for a local brokerage. He has been in this industry for about ten years now. He is good at what he does and generally enjoys the challenge of finding people who need insurance and putting together the right policy for their needs. Each day he goes in at 8:30am and leaves around 5:00pm with a lunch crammed somewhere in the middle. He comes home to his wife of 15 years and their three children. A typical night includes playing with the kids, helping with dinner, and then helping with homework. He and his wife normally wind down with a few television shows before calling it a night. From week to week he can essentially count on this rhythm.
One evening Tom makes a comment about starting his own brokerage firm while everyone is at the dinner table. He has had such a good year of sales that he feels he brings the firm over half of its clients. He almost chuckles as the idea rolls off his tongue though. He returns to his dinner, accompanied by an unusual moment of silence, when his wife confidently says he should do it! Surprised by the instant support, they begin to talk about the idea and some of the things it would take to get started. The small nugget of an idea turns into a reality in months and Tom is now the owner of a new insurance brokerage. Even better, he has managed to sign several clients within the first few months, turning a profit far sooner than he anticipated. Life is good. It couldn’t be better.”
The problem with life is that it doesn’t play by the rules — not for long anyway. Everyone experiences the sudden shift at some point. The bad car accident on the way to work, the miscarriage after 5 months of pregnancy, the sudden house fire, or the job cuts your company announces. Any form the calamity takes, it is set to ruin your normal rhythm of life — your orientation. Pain, heartache, or financial struggles ensue. Each leads to their own set of questions that try to make sense of the situation. Of course there are always questions about the event itself, but more importantly there are questions about reality that begin to surface. Did I make the right career choice? Is there something wrong with me? How could this happen? Many times it goes so far as to challenge your worldview. How could God let something like this happen to me? Isn’t He supposed to protect me? Doesn’t he say that He is good? How could He be “in charge” and let such horrible things happen to people? It is a time of intense confusion about your identity, your humanity, and the world in which you live. This is called Disorientation and we all face it.
“A few years go by and Tom’s brokerage is growing magnificently. He has added several talented brokers and settled into a cozy spot in the corner suite. His family has been able to improve their quality of life with new cars and a brand new home on the outskirts of town. Their kids are doing well in school and Tom even has time to take in all of their extracurricular activities. Things have been so good that he often thanks God because it still seems so surreal when he considers it.
Tom had to work late on a Tuesday evening, but it was worth it. He was about to land the biggest contract the firm had seen since its inception. He was thrilled at the prospect. Just before his guest is about to walk in, his phone rings and he sees it is his wife. He lets it go to voicemail because he knows the appointment is about to begin. Wanting to give them his undivided attention, Tom turns his phone on silent and places it in the drawer of his desk.
The meeting goes over without a hitch! Tom couldn’t be more thrilled. He grabs his phone as soon as he can to tell his wife. When he looks at the screen he sees countless calls, voicemails, and text messages from her. The sense of urgency comes over him and he calls his wife immediately only to find that his son was tackled awkwardly in football practice. The doctors think he may be paralyzed — from the neck down. The news brings a moment where time ceases and the world around him fades. “Not his little boy,” he thinks.
Life as they knew it has changed. Tom and his wife have to adjust to caring for their quadriplegic son. Tears ensue daily as they feed, change, and bathe their eleven-year-old child. Tom constantly spirals in guilt that he was not there to be with his son when it happened. Instead he “callously” turned his phone on silent. “And for what? For another sale?” he thought. This effected everything. He felt guilty being away at work. He felt overwhelmed when he was home. he couldn’t focus. It was evident that the depression had set in, but he had to be strong — to be present.”
It is here, in these moments of crisis that our worlds show their fragmentation. The problem so often becomes that we get stuck. We either get stuck trying to go backwards and revive the life we used to have, or we get stuck in our disintegration and live in a perpetual world of disorder. Neither option is healthy. Neither option reflects any true change or transformation. They both deny those who are disoriented from the fullness that lies ahead — their reorientation.
Jürgen Moltmann clarifies, “Christian faith can only mean committing oneself without reserve to the ‘crucified God.’ This is dangerous. It does not promise the confirmation of one’s own conceptions, hopes, and good intentions. It promises first of all the pain of repentance and fundamental change. It offers no recipe for success. But it brings a confrontation with the truth. It is not positive and constructive, but is in the first instance critical and destructive.”[i]
The reorientation stage is that reality where you come to terms with your past and find a new way forward. It is often surprising and unexpected because it is also often counterintuitive. It is never the way forward we would have chosen because we prefer comfort over pain and apathy over transformation. It is the way all humans are. Despite this, reorientation is the only way forward.
“How do we get there?” This is so often the question we try to figure out once we realize there is no true alternative. But this question betrays the process altogether. If we could just jump straight from our disorientation to our reorientation, then we would never learn anything. Change would never happen, or at least not on a transformative level. We love our happy endings, but we fail to remember that the reorientation is only compelling because of the hells of disorientation. We cannot rush through it. We can only persevere. We can only wait and be faithful. So the answer to the question of “how do I reorient myself or my situation?” is that you can’t. The reorienting process is solely a work of the Holy Spirit who brings the gospel to bear on our souls.
Again Moltmann is helpful in providing an understanding of the backward way in which reorientation works.
“To the extent that men in misery felt [Christ’s] solidarity with them, their solidarity with his sufferings brings them out of their situation” for “suffering is overcome by suffering, and wounds are healed by wounds… and therefore the suffering of abandonment is overcome by the suffering of love, which is not afraid of what is sick and ugly, but accepts it and takes it to itself in order to heal it. Through his own abandonment by God, the crucified Christ brings God to those who are abandoned by God. Through his suffering he brings salvation to those who suffer. Through his death he brings eternal life to those who are dying… Hence, while it is still true that suffering means being cut off from God, yet within the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, suffering is overcome by suffering, and becomes the way to communion with God.”[ii]
Here, having been reoriented, we sink into our new world. Life isn’t over yet. As time passes, what felt like a reorientation has now become the norm and we drift, once again, into a place of being oriented. We drift into a new rhythm of living until the disorientation comes knocking again.
Tom’s life seems to be nothing more than a shadow of what it once was. He doesn’t even feel like himself. His marriage is rocky at best, but at least they still support each other. They remind themselves daily of how hard things are with a quadriplegic child — a reality that seems so weighty that it threatens to crush them.
Yet, over time the new responsibilities just become a part of life. Tom and his wife have a group of people from their church who support them and help out when needed. Although they would never say that this change has become easy, they’ve become used to it. In fact, if they were honest they would admit that the event changed more than their son’s health. It also changed their very lives. The constant demands of taking care of a quadriplegic child have robbed them of their self-sufficiency and humbled them beyond repair. Perhaps some would see this as devastating, but each of them have found it a blessing in their own way. Tom, in particular, is more patient with his employees. He values every moment with his children at such a higher level. The gratitude he has for his wife has skyrocketed. She stays home every day to take care of their kids and he couldn’t be more proud. Tom never knew how deep his pride ran. He never knew how deeply he believed that he was a “big shot.” Even though he would wish that everyone could learn these lessons, he couldn’t bear to wish it that they would learn the way he did. “Sometimes,” he thinks, “life doesn’t always go the way we anticipate, but it’s always taking you somewhere — somewhere bigger and better if you only ride the wave all the way to shore.”
The reality of how we change through the process of orientation > disorientation > reorientation is actually a gift in disguise. Although there is nothing fun or enjoyable about the disorienting seasons of our lives, they become woven into the fabric of who we are. To put it another way the transition from disorientation to reorientation can often be called a “defining moment.” They are the events that call us out of our comfort zone and propel us into the new horizons that we wouldn’t have ever come to otherwise. So the task of every person is not to avoid the disorienting moments of life, but to embrace them with the full knowledge and hope that they will be transformed into the new, reoriented world.
In some real sense, this process of going from orientation to reorientation is not just for traversing trials, but the pattern for all of Life. Didn’t Christ say, “take up your cross and follow me?” It seems obvious that the cross was the most disorienting event of history and, therefore, a pattern for how we go through our seasons of disorientation. The book of Hebrews says that rather than avoiding the cross (like so many of us would like to do) he endured the cross because of the joy set before him and so that we would not grow weary. Even more, Paul is very clear in several places that we have not only died with Christ, but we have also been “raised with Christ.” If the cross represents the essence of disorientation, then the resurrection becomes the epitome of reorientation.
If this is true, the process of orientation > disorientation > reorientation are not just nicely packaged psychological concepts. Rather, they are deeply biblical concepts. They can be seen throughout Scriptures in places such as the Exodus, the Exile, or the experiences of the early church in the book of acts. Whichever storyline you find most compelling, the bottom line is this: we cannot escape disorientation, but we can decide whether or not we will faithfully await the reorientation that Christ as written for us.
[i] Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. New York: Harper & Row, 1974, pg. 39.
[ii] Moltmann, pg. 46, 51, 56.