6 ways to find joy during times of change
“I’m in the chrysalis,” I said to Albert over dinner the other night. “I’m changing, but I’m not sure into what yet. I know I’ve left a life behind, but the new one isn’t clear. Basically, I’m goo.”
I surprised myself by how matter-of-fact I was about this. It wasn’t a bad thing, to be goo. I wasn’t asking for help or advice. I was simply stating what had become increasingly obvious to me — that the transformation I’m going through is profound, mostly invisible, slightly messy, and still in progress.
In July, I went back to the city for the first time in a year and a half. It was hard to believe it had been so long, but with Graham’s birth and not having childcare for most of the pandemic, being away for a whole day just felt overwhelming. The city felt buzzy, but changed. I wandered around our neighborhood, feeling a pang of sadness at the closures that had happened during the time I’d been away, and occasional moments of relief to see what had survived. But instead of feeling joy at being back in a place I’d loved for so long, I felt like I was visiting someone else’s life.
Many people talk about “going back to normal.” For them, I think the pandemic has functioned like a kind of pause button for life. When they press play again, life will resume more or less as it did before. But recently I realized that my life now is almost unrecognizable from what it was 18 months ago. We moved out of the apartment we had lived in for 6 years before the pandemic, and haven’t yet fully unpacked the one we were renovating when it started. We sold the cottage that had been our weekend refuge in March, and moved to a new house in a different neighborhood. My work has changed, from jetting off to various destinations to give talks to mostly performing those talks in front of a camera in my home office. And of course, the most radical shift of all: at the start of the pandemic I was six months pregnant. I was not a parent, and now I am. There’s no version of before that makes sense to return to anymore.
Every friend I talk to lately is going through similar discontinuities. One got married during the pandemic, and is emerging from isolation with a whole different set of priorities. Another is, like me, a longtime city-dweller trying to decide whether she wants to continue to live in the country long-term. Others are dreading a return to the office, questioning whether they want to change jobs or even careers. As one friend put it, “Everyone’s starting to go back to normal. But what if I don’t want to go back to normal?”
The pandemic broke my version of normal. And while I’m grieving some losses, I’m also finding it freeing. I hadn’t realized how much sway “normal” exerted on my way of life until there was no normal anymore. And without those familiar guideposts, how much possibility there might be to create a different life — and a different self — from the ones I had previously imagined.
All of which to say, I’m in the midst of transformation, and while it is at times scary and at times confusing, it’s mostly a liberating, creative, and above all, joyful endeavor. But when I look to our culture for references, I don’t see this reflected back at me. Mostly, I see transformation and growth depicted as an experience of struggle or trial. There are coming-of-age stories, which emphasize the protagonist as being awkward and out of step with those around them, making painful mistakes until they finally figure out their new selves. (Think Dirty Dancing or 13 Going on 30 or Lady Bird.) There are the stories of transformation through trial, where growth comes through a series of self-imposed or externally provided hardships that help to reveal the new self. (Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, trudging up the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, comes to mind here, or Overboard, or Baby Boom.) And then there are the stories of those who resist change, maybe even losing many of the things that matter to them in the process, until they finally “wake up” to their new self. (I’m thinking About a Boy, or Sweet Home Alabama — you know I love Reese Witherspoon — or The Five-Year Engagement.)
And while I love many of these stories, none of them quite fits what I’m experiencing right now. Maybe that’s because slow, gentle, quiet transformation doesn’t make for a very good movie. (What would we see except for a lot of long walks, voiceovers of the narrator writing in her journal, and meandering conversations with partners and friends?) But also, our culture doesn’t much like the messy process of transformation. We hate renovations, but love the final reveal. We find practice tedious, but performance dazzling. We love arrivals, we love destinations. But journeys? Hurry up and get us there already.
This makes me wonder: Is personal transformation made harder because we expect it to be that way? Are we primed to think growth must be painful, and does this prevent us from seeing the joy in it?
Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts along these lines on Instagram, and more than a hundred comments later, it’s clear that I’m not alone in feeling like I’m in a period of transformation, and that I’m also not alone in my hunger for more positive language to describe this experience. (Here’s the post, if you’d like to read it and add your voice to the conversation.)
One comment that caught my eye in particular was from Latoya J. Williams, who picked up on another commenter’s use of the word intense. She writes, “I think that pain, intense, uncomfortable, grief, etc. are among a constellation of words that we use to describe the ‘contrast’ or ‘gap’ between where we are and the unknown of where we’re going during more obvious times of individual evolution in our lives. The process doesn’t have to be ‘painful.’ And, I’ve found that the process usually can feel ‘intense’ at times, when I become fully present to the moment and my body. And, I think that’s normal! Intensity or a sense of contrast is probably the main way that we know that we’re shifting.”
I love this reframe from painful to intense. It reminds me of the research that shows that when we recast the anxiety we feel before a presentation or performance as excitement, we end up feeling less anxious and we actually perform better. Anxiety and excitement are both rooted in the physiological sensations of arousal, but how we interpret that arousal makes a big difference in our experience. Can we do the same for growth? By thinking of the strong feelings we experience during a time of change as intensity, instead of labeling them as painful, can we take the sting out of the experience and open ourselves up to seeing and feeling it more deeply?
Personally, I find metaphors helpful for this. They help to pull me up out of my experience, turn it around, and look at it from a different perspective. So I thought I’d share six metaphors for transformation — many inspired by the Instagram post shared above — that have helped me find a new lens on times of change. Not every metaphor will apply in every situation, but I hope you find one or two that helps you too.
Discovering the statue
We often think of change as an additive process, like we’re creating a new self. This can leave us feeling a little like builders who never received the architect’s blueprints — we know we’re supposed to put up a house, but what kind of house are we building?
In this case, it might help to take a cue from Michelangelo, who said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Instead of building our new self, what if instead our task is to discover it? Rather than starting with an empty worksite and trying to muscle a structure into being, we’re instead starting with everything we need, and aiming to remove what’s unnecessary so we can find the form inside.
This mindset shift puts me into a mindset of curiosity, rather than one of labor. It becomes about unraveling a mystery, in the words of one commenter, and cultivates anticipation, in the words of another. As reader Jenna Guenett notes, “I have been making positive associations in my mind to uncertainty and change… like Christmas morning or the first day of vacation. You don’t know what it’s going to be, but you know it’s going to be good.” When change offers the potential for discovery, it’s much easier to get excited about what’s to come.
I first became aware of the notion of wintering through a talk I once heard on creative seasons. (I wish I could remember the source. If it sounds familiar to anyone, please let me know.) The idea is that as a creative person, your output goes in cycles that mirror the Earth’s seasons. In a creative spring, ideas bud and flower, and we feel the buzz of new inspiration. In summer, our work develops and deepens, and in fall we harvest. The arc of a kind of work comes to completion, and begins to senesce. We may begin to feel tired or bored, and start craving something new. And then in winter, we rest. (These don’t necessarily correlate to physical seasons — they can happen at any time of year. It’s more about the feeling of the season.)
I started reading the Katherine May book, Wintering, in spring this year. It felt odd to pick it up just as the blossoms were returning to the trees, but I had the sense I needed it. May describes the necessity of periodic wintering this way: “Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
It may look like nothing’s happening in winter, but the truth is anything but. Below the frozen topsoil, seeds are getting ready to germinate. Buds are already set on the trees, waiting for the right time to burst open. The Earth’s creatures are resting, saving energy for the wild frenzy of spring. If we think about it this way, it shifts our attention from loss to potential. And it creates space in which to let that potential bubble up, rather than feeling like we need to force it into existence. Winter can’t be rushed, and transformation can’t either.
Being between trapezes
This metaphor is a new one for me, but having taken a couple of leaps from a flying trapeze at a Club Med twenty years ago, it immediately resonated. It comes from the title of the book Between Trapezes by Gail Blanke, which offers itself as a manual for those attempting to navigate big life changes.
Blanke explains the metaphor this way:
The reason I use the trapeze metaphor is because we all are ‘between’ in some area of our life, and because the wonderful thing about trapezes is that you can’t hold onto two of them at the same time. You’ve got to let go of the old one – the old view, the old way, the old idea, the old title – before you can reach out and grasp that new one. And in between, you’re not holding onto anything.
And it’s also the best of all possible times, because it’s where you discover who you are now and what you’re passionate about now and what’s possible now. You might even discover new talents and new people and new ideas, so that you can, in fact, reinvent yourself. But we all like to know how it’s going to turn out, so it’s hard to step out into that vast unknown.
We’re flying in midair, which can be frightening, but in that gap we are also unbound from the constraints that used to define us. Flying is inherently joyful, and, as reader Megan Edwards, who suggested this book, points out, even in our vulnerability, we do have a safety net below us. I like the idea of clarifying our safety nets, whether those are relationships, practices, or other anchors in life, and reminding ourselves of them so that we can concentrate on that weightless, airy moment between trapezes.
A few commenters mentioned this idea, and one linked it back to Amy Poehler, though I haven’t yet been able to find her specific thoughts on this notion. Renaissance literally means a rebirth, but it also connotes the period in Italian history when art and culture flourished after the Dark Ages. A personal renaissance, then, is not only chance for a fresh start, but a springing forth of new creative energy.
For me, this metaphor highlights the generative aspect of transformation. A personal renaissance doesn’t guarantee any particular result, but it is a lively, even boisterous time. And just as the Renaissance was a period that turned long-held assumptions on their heads (such as Copernicus declaring that the Earth revolved around the sun, or Vesalius disproving that women had an extra rib), a personal renaissance entails a revolutionary shift in worldview, and our own place within that.
Coming home to oneself
“There’s no place like home,” said Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and this metaphor offers a comforting spin on change. So often we view change as a journey away from the known self, toward an unknown that can be daunting, even frightening. As we change jobs, homes, or other aspects of life, we feel we venturing into a terra incognita — an unmapped landscape.
But what if we view change not as a departure, but a return? What if the old condition was more distant, and the new self is closer to our most natural state of being?
In fact, this is often how it feels after we have landed on the other side of a change. We wonder how we ever could have lived in the old way. We feel that we have seen a truth that was hidden from us before, and our new life is aligned with that truth in a way that our old life was not. We cannot imagine going back.
This metaphor is a clever way of previewing that feeling, reminding us that no matter how much uncertainty we feel in the present, we won’t always feel this way. Knowing that solid ground lies ahead makes it easier to feel patient with the instability of the transition.
In the chrysalis
This was my original metaphor, and for me, it still captures that ineffable mystery of transformation. The notion of a chrysalis or a cocoon is protective and quiet, a secret space for secret work. The metaphor entails moving from one state to another, and while there’s sometimes an assumption that the butterfly is better than the caterpillar (a kind of looksist value judgment), in reality, the change in form is more about adaptation to a stage of life: the caterpillar feeds and grows, the butterfly migrates and reproduces. Neither is better, both are necessary.
When I think about being in my chrysalis, it reminds me that I don’t have to come out until I’m ready. My transformation doesn’t have to be public, and it doesn’t have to follow a clear set of steps. I can live in my own mystery until it’s time to stretch those new wings. I don’t have to rush. I will know when it’s time.
Do you have a metaphor that helps you view transformation more joyfully? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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