I have learned many secrets in life, but perhaps the most valuable is one that often appears difficult to understand and apply. The secret is this: The whole of your life’s experience is but an outer expression of your inner thoughts. Your life at the moment, whether fruitful and fulfilling or empty and tragic, reflects the choices you have made in the past. We choose how we think, and in turn, the way we think influences the choices we make that shape our lives. We have free will, but the way we use our free will is a direct result of the thoughts we choose to have. Neither my life nor yours has been an accident. They have been the result of choices you and I have made. This article is about making choices to enhance the experience of life. The choices are not mine to suggest, to own, or to make on your behalf. They are yours to select, to acquire, and to use.
I have been labeled a number of things in my life, especially during that part of my life before I overcame my addiction to alcohol. None of the labels were flattering, and I have no doubt that the people who applied them to me believed they were permanent. They included drunk, loser, bum, and the usual epithets handed out to people who appear to have a disastrous past, an appalling present, and a bleak future.
Today, I am a successful businessman, an attentive husband, the proud father of two active daughters, and a guy dedicated to offering assistance to those in need of mentors and cheerleaders. Writing about my journey from homeless alcoholic to my current status added another identity: bestselling author of When All You Have Is Hope (Penguin, 2008).
A Process to Handle Personal Crisis
Identifying the Right Action
Much of the success of Western society is based on the idea of taking immediate action, as in, “Don’t just stand there – do something!” And that is often precisely the wrong thing to do. Leaping into action makes sense when your house is engulfed in flames, or when a mad bull comes charging at you across an open meadow. But let’s face it: almost none of the personal crises you and I will encounter in our lives has any relation to these kinds of events. The truth is that it is best not to act immediately in the midst of a crisis situation that does not involve three-alarm fires or angry bulls. Do we need to take action? Of course we do. But only if we do the next right thing.
The core problem many of us fail to overcome is that we cannot identify the next right thing to do. Why? Because in the midst of a crisis situation, we are the least qualified person to recognize just what it is we should do. The lesson, as simple as it sounds, is one we need to learn and heed when faced with any of the unknown and unexpected personal crises we will face in our lives. We need to:
- place our trust in a safe place,
- find peace, and
- do the next right thing.
Retrieve Control of your Life
One of the terms used to describe how people feel in the midst of a crisis is that they are in free fall. Dropping from one place to another, they are unsure how long they will fall, where they will land, and whether they will survive the landing. The only thing they believe for certain is that they have little or no control over this unwelcome journey.
Believing you lack control over your own life is a major cause of depression. That’s not just my opinion: it’s a fact confirmed by psychologists. After having lost a spouse, a relationship, a job, or some other part of their identity, many people believe they have no control over the future they face. So it stands to reason that the most effective method of rising out of a depressed state caused by a personal crisis is to retrieve control of your life.
That’s a simple suggestion for a complex process. Among the symptoms of depression is having difficulty taking meaningful action to deal with the situation. Question: How can you take control of your life when your life is controlling you? Answer: By letting go. By finding the place where you are above and beyond the reaches of your crisis. By recognizing, from this new point of view, what must be done and having the confidence, the assurance, and the total certainty of doing it. And sometimes, by having the support of someone who knows what you are going through and – even more importantly – knows how to help you through it.
Develop a Process
So is there a predictable means of dealing successfully with a personal crisis? Can a process be developed that gives everyone guidance on moving through a crisis as quickly and painlessly as possible? I’m not speaking of the kind of event associated with serious mental disorders leading to suicidal tendencies; these disorders require treatment by qualified professionals. What I’m referring to is the kind of common but serious events you may bump up against in your life even when you’re mentally healthy. These events are unexpected, and appear to defy your ability to deal with them. They can be merely irritating and temporary, or they can be painful, debilitating, and frightening.
In the midst of a severe crisis, you seek the same things you look for when suffering a severe headache: quick relief from the agony, and resumption of your peaceful and generally pain-free life. Few pain-relievers work so quickly and thoroughly, and few solutions to our crises provide similar one-step effects. The process involved in moving from where you are now to where you want to be in the future may require a series of decisions, made only when you are ready to discover and apply them.
This presents a problem, doesn’t it? When you’re in a crisis, you want out of it now, especially if it’s a personal crisis affecting your emotions. But your teenage daughter likely didn’t begin using drugs the moment you discovered them. The marriage that crumbled through infidelity or incompatibility wasn’t perfect up to the day one of you demanded a divorce. And your creditors didn’t get together over coffee this morning to unite in taking legal action against you. Crises take time to shape themselves. Unfortunately, they also often take at least a little time to resolve, although some can be resolved faster and more easily than you imagine.
Personal Crisis as a Turning Point
It’s not your intelligence or your perception that prevents you from taking the best action to emerge from the crisis. It’s evolution. We inherited certain characteristics from Stone Age ancestors who foraged in an environment in which they were both predator and prey. When these people discovered they were playing the latter role, the survivors were those who were highly efficient at taking one of two alternative actions: fight off the predator, or run fast enough to escape the threat. Those who were good at both managed to live long enough to pass their genes down to future generations. Today, we possess the same fight-or-flight response when faced with a threat, and it is deeply rooted in our instincts.
Fight or flight works well when the choice is either eat or be eaten, but not so well when the threat is essentially emotional – and that’s at the core of most personal crises we encounter. Too often, your intelligence is overwhelmed by your emotions in the middle of a personal crisis. When neither flight nor fight is appropriate, you are intellectually bereft. You become, in effect, the dumbest person in the room.
We all suffer crises in our lives, but we don’t all agree on just what the word means and how the crisis will affect us. When I asked some people for their definition of a crisis, one of the most common responses was disaster. Others suggested danger, catastrophe, tragedy, and similar words. But that’s not really what crisis means; the core of the word’s meaning has nothing to do with emotional pain and distress. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “crisis” as: “A turning point in the progress of anything; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent.
No mention of disaster. No reference to danger or tragedy. Nothing to suggest heartbreak or misfortune. The Oxford tells us that crisis means change. If you can remember that the crisis you are enduring does not necessarily mean devastation to your life and happiness, you will be better equipped to follow the steps I’ll explain, and to deal with your situation.
A crisis is not necessarily an ending, a pause, or a total stop. It is a turning point. Something is changing, or about to change. Your control over how things are changing may be limited, but your reaction to the change is entirely in your hands. If your reaction is to remain emotionally paralyzed, unable to respond in any manner, you lose control over the path the crisis will follow.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Do the Next Right Thing by Frank O’Dea with John Lawrence Reynolds. Copyright © Frank O’Dea, 2013. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Canada Books Inc.
The victim of abuse as a teenager, at age 24, Frank O’Dea was a homeless alcoholic. But he was able to turn his life around and become a successful businessman while creating a family. In this book, he shares the lessons he’s learned, offering guidelines to help people through their own crises.