Finding Center: Four Questions to Ask Yourself When the “Worst” Happens


A few years ago, I was cruising along in life when, out of what felt like nowhere, everything changed. My perception of the life I’d lived was put into question as I faced the abrupt end to my marriage. Every plan and idea I had about the future was placed on hold as I grappled with the loss of my spouse and an an uncertain future. One of my favorite sayings is that hindsight is 20/20. I now understand and can accept things that at the time I fought against. I also can see that there was a lot I did, not always consciously, that laid the framework for healing and growth during an unexpected divorce which could have completely derailed me.

When we’re faced with traumatizing circumstances or an unexpected turn, it’s easy to react instead of respond. When we react, we often do so out of the heightened emotional state we’re in. We may say or do things we regret because we haven’t stopped to consider what our options are. Instead, I believe that our greatest strength in the midst of chaos is in the power to choose and to do so wisely. Let me add that wisdom is not always a ready resource when the worst happens. As I reflect on how I made it through that dark time in my life, much of what I  held on to was passed on to me by friends or counselors who themselves were not embroiled in my own unfolding saga. Their rootedness anchored me. Here are a few key questions that we all can ask when all may seem lost, a few of them inspired by some amazing people who walked beside me.

Who do I want to be?

In the middle of what felt like  impossible circumstances, I decided early on to see a therapist. She encouraged me to take good care of myself, saying, “your children will be well if you are well.” Whether it’s children or other important relationships, it’s true. All of them will suffer if you are not well yourself. I had to consider who I wanted to be and how I was going to handle the situation that I found myself in. At the time, I probably could not have articulated who I wanted to be, but I knew that I still wanted to enjoy life. I took my kids to the zoo, the park, the beach. In the face of deep internal agony, I still got out of bed. I cooked dinner. I went to the gym. Each and every ounce of self-care had a cumulative effect that kept me moving towards the next thing, even if it was just walking across the room. I wanted to be someone who could live well, even if my course was being dramatically altered.

I came to understand who I wanted to be by also recognizing who I wasn’t going to be. Whatever battles you choose to fight will be a withdrawal from your emotional reserves, so choose wisely. It’s important to also consider how you fight. A dear friend passed on some advice she’d been given during a difficult period in her own life. She said, “do no more harm; don’t add to your regrets; always take the high road.” The high road doesn’t always feel good. It means not necessarily getting in the last word. It means choosing grace over revenge. Taking the high road means saying and doing things that don’t keep you up at night rehashing old scenes and wishing you’d done things differently. It also means forgiving yourself when you blew it all together because, after all, choosing the high road is impossible to do perfectly.

What do I believe?

I am of the Christian variety. While there are many different tents in this camp, I am grateful to be in the it’s-ok-if-you-aren’t perfect one. I let God know I was angry. With the windows tightly rolled up, I screamed and let God have it. My marriage as I saw it had been untouchable; my expectations that I could preserve it at all cost were perhaps naïve. Even still, I was honest with God about how I felt about what was happening in my life. In the years since the hardest turns, I’ve often prayed simple, sometimes indiscernible prayers. “Set my feet on a firm path; show me the way. Help.”

Knowing what you believe, though, especially if you don’t profess a faith isn’t about finding a religion necessarily but, rather, about knowing what your internal order is. We each live by a set of values, internally held but externally lived out. What, where, how, and with whom you spend your time says a lot about what you think is important. Sometimes those things are helpful, especially during a time of hardship. If not, then it may be time to identify some values that offer a better way to deal with what you’re going through and ultimately put on the horizon a glimpse of the life you want to live in the future.

What can I control?

When I was going through my divorce, I felt like everything was being taken away. I could easily have fallen victim to my circumstances and, as I mentioned earlier, reacted from angst. Instead, I made a list of what I could control when everything else felt out of control. I could still try to make my kids laugh. I could still create beauty. I could spend time with friends. I could hold on to hope and believe there was something beautiful waiting on the other side of my painful situation.

I could control my attitude and each choice that I made. Sometimes I chose to drive 30 minutes just to play the piano in an empty chapel where my friend was a pastor. Other times I chose to make lasagna which seemed fancy when cooking for just me and two small children who would have been just as happy with hot dogs for the hundredth night in a row. Each choice was an investment in restoring my sense of empowerment, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant.

Who do I love? And who loves me back?

The trauma of my divorce left me vulnerable, foggy-headed, and facing a mountain of decisions that I was ill-prepared for. While some friends marveled at my strength, I now can say with confidence that I am still standing because of theirs. When the “worst” happens, draw close to the people who have a track record in your life; lean into them.

A friend I’ve known since the fifth grade spent hours with me on the other end of a telephone line, several states away on the first evening I was alone. Another sent a box of fruit and earrings, small tokens of love from the other side of the country. Friends cooked for me, painted with me, sipped wine with me and held me through the most difficult of days. When we’re faced with the worst and lean into the ones we love, we will know who loves us back because they are still there when the sun comes up again.

Riding In Cars

I was afraid to look around me, afraid of what I’d find. Gathering my bearings, I can hardly recall climbing out of the car, which was upside down on the opposite side of the road from an embankment. Had the driver veered that way, I shudder to think of what horrible fate may have met me or one of the four other passengers riding in the SUV. As it was, his jerking of the wheel to overcompensate for our car’s loss of traction in the deluge of rain had left us hydroplaning off the road and flipping onto our roof along a desolate road in rural Ethiopia. The windows busted out, and one person remained in the front seat, unsure of how to unbuckle himself from his upside-down position. His wife, clinging to a tree, was frantic, wondering why he had not gotten out.

That night I shook uncontrollably, trying to get warm under the covers in a hotel we’d managed to arrive at after a group of Chinese engineers traveling on the same road gave us a ride. We needed to go to a hospital, but we were miles and at least a day’s ride away from reliable care. Other than a rug burn from landing on my knees on the ceiling of the vehicle for having not been wearing a seatbelt, there was no external evidence that I was hurt. Eventually, my back ache subsided, and I was seemingly recovered.

One evening, many months later, I rode in a van in Kenya to pick someone up at the airport. It was raining, and I wondered why I felt so nervous on the ride. Then I remembered the rain on that day when our car hydroplaned, fearing the same thing would happen again. After all, the variables were similar; it was raining, and I was not in control of the wheel nor the gas.

I read an article this morning that resonated with me and summed up the characteristics of how a “new normal” is found, following trauma. In ten, thoughtful points, the author highlighted several things to consider in light of finding one’s way through the unexpected blows that life may deal us, one being that we are forever changed. To that I would add that trauma is also permanently with us, sometimes buried deeply while at other times completely blind-siding us by the lingering effects of grief and loss or downright fear. What may seem like perfectly benign stimulus to one person propels another into all out panic because we now know, unlike before, what is possible. And we will never again take that for granted.

But does that mean I’ve stopped riding in cars? No. Perhaps to the chagrin of a few who’ve heard my plea to slow down in the rain or on a hairpin turn, I would occasionally interject my requests to whoever was chauffeuring me to the airport in Gambella, Ethiopia. Blazing up a dusty, gravel road at the mercy of a driver who had no idea, really, what the car was capable of, I couldn’t help but ask a driver to slow down in the months that followed our rainy day misadventure. That memory lingered in my mind even then, fueling anxieties that were often dormant until I was at the mercy of another driver in conditions that felt all too familiar to what had precipitated the accident I’d survived.

In much the same ways, the trauma of my life’s upheaval in the last few years following a painful divorce is still with me. While I have no doubt found my stride in the new normal, I don’t always know what will set off a bout of angst, upsetting my emotional equilibrium. I fear people are tired of my plight, and I lament that this ugly thing that happened never will, in fact, go away. But just like that rainy day in October of 2000, I am still here, and I am stronger for it. I am me, only different–weathered a bit and not so naive as to think I’m exempt from certain types of pain.

I’m not exempt from certain types of pain, and I’m also not immune to the adverses ways it might affect my personality at times. Trauma can permanently change us in both good and sometimes not-so-good ways. When considering some of the limitations placed on my life by my own set of difficult circumstances, I have to keep remembering that not playing the victim rests largely in my ability to keep identifying the choices that are within my reach. When I long for something that feels completely out of reach, I must stretch in the other direction and reach, instead, for what is accessible to me. I must keep making choices around the things that I do have some control, even if it is just repainting the bathroom.

Suffering is free range in this game of life. The hardest part perhaps is that we don’t get to choose what precisely will make our life in particular difficult. Life is tough; pain is what makes it tender and opens us up to seeing ourselves, our world and others in a new light. Only, we have to, at the very least, be open to the possibility that we can grow from our trauma. Otherwise, it’s just making mountains out of mole hills that never change the scenery for good. While trauma can make us better, it can also leave us bitter. Knowing what anchors you to hope is imperative for the journey. Thankfully, for me, friendship, laughter, faith and a good bit of exercise make good seatbelts. The ride will be bumpy, sometimes turbulent, but I’m going to keep riding.