Don’t let a crisis go to waste

How to seize life-changing moments before they fade.

We stood on the tanbark, holding up a hand to block the sun as we looked up. Will stared down at us from the top of the playground structure. And by top, I mean the roof that was not meant to be climbed on.

Was he really going to jump? Shit. I hoped not. If Will jumped, we’d all have to do the same. Such was the sole purpose of our 3rd grade “Daredevils” club.

As he always did, Will jumped. Then we all jumped.

Will couldn’t help being cool. If he fell during graduation, it’d be endearing. If he beat you in foursquare, you’d secretly feel honored. If he took up trumpet, your guitar would instantly feel lame.

So when he decided to join the Army after high school I instinctively thought — “oh, that’s cool.” I imagined he’d be sitting in some kind of tent in the desert, being cool Will and making everyone laugh.

I was camping on the beach when I found out Will was killed in Iraq. I quietly left my tent and climbed onto a giant boulder that stretched from the sand out to sea. I laid on my back, stared at the sky, and cried like a little baby.

That may have been the first time I considered the stars. They were no longer my evening’s wallpaper.

What I saw that night were the delicate echoes of a thousand suns, dusted across the impossible emptiness of space. I wanted to witness them every night.

Fast-forward two weeks and I was inside my apartment on a beautiful night, indifferently watching Seinfeld re-runs as the stars quietly drifted outside, unseen and forgotten.

My older cousin Spencer reminded me a lot of Chris Farley. He laughed louder than anyone I knew. He introduced me to Playboy. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Also like Farley, everyone loved Spencer but you sometimes got the sense that he didn’t believe it. You could see it at the end of his laugh sometimes, the corners of his mouth sagging, as though he’d stepped offstage for a moment and decided the audience was just being polite.

A week before his wedding day, Spencer collapsed on his front lawn, brought down by a freak blood clot in his leg. He died almost instantly.

When I got the call I was at my desk, stressing over the wording of a Powerpoint slide. In an instant that slide became the least meaningful thing in the world.

If Spencer could die so suddenly, literally anyone I knew could. In that moment all I wanted to do was line up each of my family and friends and give them individual bear hugs.

Fast-forward two weeks and I was back at my desk, pretending that what I was working on was important. Bear hugs were not on the to-do list.

My grandfather was an Irish gentleman. He visited hospitals to sing sweet Irish songs to people on their deathbeds. And when he was on his own deathbed, he sang sweet Irish songs to us.

I’ll never forget sitting at his hospital bedside, watching him sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to my mom and her sisters. Now and then I’d catch him looking out the window. Something in his eyes told me he knew that was the last sunlight he’d ever see.

This is what matters, I thought. Singing songs with your family. Appreciating the sun just because it’s the sun and it’s a freaking miracle.

Fast-forward two weeks and I was scrolling on my Facebook news feed, my mind on autopilot, searching for absolutely nothing. The sun was definitely a miracle that made my Instagram filters look great. I sure as hell wasn’t singing any songs with my family.

At some point in your life you start to realize that something strange is going on here. You can only swing from embracing the miracle of life to reading clickbait articles so many times before you sense that something is up.

We have life crises that backhand us in the face, forcing us to zoom out.

We feel the piano of the world thumping a nameless song deep in our chest, singing of the sad and beautiful things we don’t have words for.

We see the world for what it really is. We’re ready to see it that way forever.

But unlike Neo in The Matrix, we don’t get to choose the red pill and permanently wake up to this reality. Life forces us to take the blue pill, and before we know it we’re zoomed back in, refreshing our Instagram activity in line at Starbucks. Reading an ESPN story about a college football team we don’t even care about. Who was that smooth-talking guy in the leather coat? Must have been a dream.

The harsh reality is that we’re all more habitual and run on autopilot than we’d like to think, by a very wide margin. Thousands of years of evolution have designed brains that can keep us alive based on instincts and habits, without our needing to pause in each moment and take perspective. Noticing the beauty of the tall grass isn’t going to save us from the saber-tooth tiger.

From the moment we wake up in the morning, our minds start wandering without our consent — counting the hours since we texted last night’s date, pondering the fate of Jon Snow, and fantasizing about our upcoming lunch burrito.

Then we’re rushed through the day, bouncing between e-mails and lattes and Netflix queues, with hardly a moment to zoom out.

Any perspective we’d gained from a recent life crisis goes the way of a new relationship’s ga-ga phase. Before we know it it’s gone and we can hardly remember how it felt.

There’s a saying in politics that goes something like “don’t let a crisis go to waste.” Winston Churchill supposedly coined it.

The logic goes like this: The public will only agree to major changes if they are emotionally moved, and nothing moves them like a crisis. So when a national crisis strikes, a smart leader will push a bunch of changes through the system before the “emotional window” closes.

Lincoln had the Civil War, FDR had Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush had 9/11. These crises opened a window for change that eventually closed.

And when crisis strikes our personal lives, the same thing happens.

[I use the word crisis, but it can be anything that causes us to zoom out: the right song at the right moment, a child’s unbridled joy, or an unexpected smile from a friendly stranger.]

Just as in politics, the emotional window for change is only open for so long before our routines have us back to our old ways.

So when that window opens, and we hear the song of the world thumping in our hearts, it’s time to get to work. Time to make changes that will still be there when we wake up from the blue pill. Changes that permanently affect our routines.

Don’t resolve to be more generous — sign up right now to volunteer at a specific date.

Don’t resolve to look for a new job — give notice at your current one.

Don’t resolve to express your love more often — sit down right now and e-mail your gratitude to 5 people (or better yet — gasp — tell them in person).

Is it a concrete action that can’t be undone once you’re back to your routine? Do it. Is it a change in perspective for you to act on later? Don’t waste your time.

Before you know it your powerful will to change will be nothing more than your dream about being in the Matrix.

So don’t let a crisis go to waste. I know it’s hard, but it’s the hard moves that make us.

And it’s worth it. Because you know what? The stars are a wonder to behold. Our friends and family could be gone in an instant. And the sun is a freaking miracle.


Can you relate? Write a response and share your story with us! If you want to see more of my stories, Follow me. And of course, feel free to e-mail me. I’d love to hear from you.

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The stunning art in this article is by my good friend and Dreamworks artist Danny Langston. Feel free to e-mail Danny as well. Thank you!

John’s other stories:

The Opposite of Evolution

How easy options are turning us into mindless hamsters.

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