From Breakdown to Breakthrough: How Difficult Situations Make Room for What’s New

Posted on May 3, 2005 at 8:06 a.m.

By: Daniela Abbott

   Have you ever been in a situation that went from bad to worse to absurd? From disbelief to breakdown to breakthrough?

   A friend recently shared this story:  her car had been overheating and clearly needed time in the shop.  So, one morning she and her husband rearranged work schedules and postponed errands so that they could drop off her car at the mechanic, share his car and get to work.  A few hours into her work day, she received a call from her eldest son, stating that he was on the side of the freeway with family car #3.  It had slowed down to a snail’s pace and would no longer turn over. So, she and her spouse rearranged schedules yet another time to retrieve him, and get all three family members home.  Now two cars were in the shop.  How could any more go wrong?  Well, just a few days later, it was a cold afternoon that would soon turn dark and icy, and as my friend drove the only working car home, she started to hear a loud pinging sound.  In fact, the noise got worse the longer she drove. 

     She decided to head off yet another car crisis by driving directly to the mechanic, hoping he could take a quick look and save her a breakdown.  She had heard that pinging sounds could be associated with the oil and thought this could be a relatively quick fix.   After evaluating the situation, the mechanic delivered the news-  the pistons had worn down over the years and would only degenerate more.  He pronounced that the engine would have to be replaced. 

     Now my friend felt completely overwhelmed.  Thoughts of all the family’s expenses came flooding in.  How would they pay their regular bills with thousands of dollars in car expenses?  Their youngest son’s tuition would soon be due…and her husband was undergoing medical treatment that was costly and necessary.  Without proper care, he was bed ridden with pain.  This had already affected his otherwise full time career.

    I’d like to say that there’s some positive ending to this story; that the family has found a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.  But, in truth, they’re not there yet. 

     My friend and her family are in the midst of prioritizing and re-prioritizing; deciding which car to put money into, which to let go of, and whether to purchase another one; determining the resources available so they can get to work; and considering whether to take  on second jobs or change the ones they have for higher pay.

     Each change is disruptive; and the solutions don’t guarantee happiness.

     I share this story because the events went so clearly from bad to worse to completely absurd.  How could my friend have imagined that all 3 cars would be disabled simultaneously? That her family’s stability could be dismantled systematically in a matter of days?  That she would have to worry about the givens of her life, such as attending work, making ends meet, getting her son through college, her husband’s medical treatment and simply paying the bills? 

     And yet, in the adjusting and readjusting to it all, as we let go of what has been “should be” and get further and further from what was, voila!  We break free.  We’ve broken the mold.  We’re uprooted, rudderless, shocked, speechless, floating and free.  We don’t have words for this new reality; it’s so far from where we’ve come that there’s no way to even duplicate what was.  All that is, is new. 

    These times are transformative. Once we turn from a perspective of holding on to the past and stemming each, progressive loss, we have the possibility of allowing in the new—of something breakthrough— a solution or way of being that awakens us and refreshes our being.  Uncomfortably disrupted, shaken from our shell, what do we have to lose?   

     In preparation for our retreat on women’s development of spirituality, we came across this wonderful quote about transformation (taken from an interview in The Feminine Face of God, by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins):

“…We all have to learn how to chart the inner and outer cycles in our lives.  There are initiatory experiences like birth, marriage, lovers parting, jobs lost, everything cracking open.  These are times when the old forms are breaking.  Whatever has channeled and structured energy in the past breaks open, because a greater awareness and energy has to come in.  I think we can mistake these times [for breakdowns/falling apart]…

The interviewee goes on to say, “We don’t have instruction manuals that warn us, “Something is cracking open to allow the new to enter.  This is not about [falling apart].  It’s about a spiritual birth.  Use the power that you’re feeling to wake up, to bring the next stage of consciousness in.” 

      At this point my friend doesn’t know how she and her family will solve this problem.  Perhaps a friend with an extra car will come to their aid; perhaps their son will qualify for additional financial assistance or take a year off and work; perhaps her husband’s condition, which has been improving, will allow him to work more steadily; perhaps she’ll take a different job, like it better or worse, or take a second job just for the time being; and maybe they’ll buy a car that has 0% financing and gives cash back!  Who knows…but she did say that this was a time when her marriage could feel very rocky…when the trials they have been through either strengthen and guide them through this new episode, or threaten to break them down.  It could go either way.

     Is this a time of awakening or just an unfortunate set of circumstances?  When we encounter such overwhelming setbacks, it’s hard to determine how to interpret them.  We can believe that everything happens for a reason or, conversely, that we live in a random universe.  Our choices however, continue to be a source of creativity.  In the words of Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and existential philosopher, “Everything can be taken away from a person but one thing; to be able to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

  A band of rainbow unfolds across the stormy sky.  Earlier this week, when my friend returned home from a long day’s work, her husband greeted her at the door.   “Things are rocky right now,”  he said.  “These are difficult times.  And as hard as it is, I’m glad I’m going through all of this with you.”  Clearly, he has chosen an attitude of gratitude, and a prism of partnership  to understand what these trials mean to him.   The seeds of transformation are available to each of them, to view this set of struggles as breakthroughs in their ability to problem solve as a couple, to get through life together no matter what, and to rely on their own, individual skills as flexible planners, prioritizers and people in an unpredictable world.

     Choose your attitude.  That’s the message.  And if you’re going through a ridiculously bad time, in between the overwhelm and sheer terror of it all, take a moment to appreciate the pauses— the moments when you can actually breathe, feel competent and complete something, maybe even laugh-- and consider whether this is your breakdown or your breakthrough.  You are porous and vulnerable.  And the old has to crack open to let in the new.


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