Stories are fascinating; they entertain, they educate, they inspire, they commiserate, they nurture. We all, young and old, settle ourselves into a comfortable position when we hear the words:
“Once upon a time….
Today, as I was thinking about the narrative of my own life, I stumbled upon a variant of the story that is so common, and yet rarely articulated. As obvious and therefore almost silly as this will sound, I wondered how to tell the non-story story. It goes like this:
‘Once upon a time, nothing happened.’
Who says that? It happens ALL the time, though. It’s the missing link in every story, every one. The way we tell stories, we imply that everything happens in a nice linear fashion, all at once. This happened, then that happened, then the next thing, and then they all lived happily ever after.
Bullshit. Doesn't work like that. The world and all of its rules and laws are formed in cycles and seasons. It’s as if one thing happens, and then something completely different happens and nobody knows why, it just does, and then something else happens, and that seems oddly coincidental, and then 10 years from now, we look back and say, ‘AHA! Look at that amazing story,’ and we tell our friends and grand-kids, AS-IF, it all happened in a tiny flicker of time.
Why do I share this? Because the part where ‘nothing is happening’ is the most important part.
Within every change, adjustment, or growth, there is a pattern. The pattern can be relied on when nothing else feels reliable. Here’s how the pattern works: There is an event, and that event leads to a break of some sort, a breakdown, a breakup, a brokenness, something shifts. Whatever the break is, we either let it break us or we resist. Now this is a story that looks linear, right? Not so fast. How many of us pull away from the struggle, avoid the hard choices, and the necessary failings? (All of us.) We let a little pain in, or make compromises that we think will patch things up, we might even retell our own story showing how accepting we are of the change that changed us. And yet, the story isn't over. That event that led to the break goes round and round, and with each successive pass, we let a little more in, we take a little more pain…
Until one day….we can take in the last big piece, and the whole thing is now brought once more to our full awareness, and we know without a doubt: it’s over. The event is there; the waves of struggle and suffering are there. The horrible task now is to digest, to fully take in the whole of this change. We begin letting go of some part of us that we thought we wanted and loved. And we grieve and maybe we get stuck here, as well. A job that we thought would be our legacy, only we’re fired. A marriage we thought would last, only it didn't. A family we truly believed would be there for us no matter what, only they weren't. (And those are the PG-rated versions!)
Now comes the punchline…wait for it. After you’re fully, completely broken-hearted and the thing that had to die, did in fact die, the next part of the pattern is the absolute hardest, trickiest, grossest, meanest, most despicable part of all. Nothing happens. Nothing. The crisis has passed and it failed to kill us. Oh, how we might have wished it had. And yet, here we are. We’re not what we were, and we’re not yet what we might become.
When nothing happens, we wait. And that’s why this is the most important part of the pattern of change. We hate waiting so much, that we try moving. Sometimes we ‘move’ by simply looking and seeing into the direction of our new path, hoping for the day when taking that step seems possible. But often, we move by trying to go back, retrace our steps, figure out what went wrong, reliving the crisis.
‘Once upon a time, nothing happened’ is the graveyard of change. And so important, that even Dr. Seuss spent two whole pages on it in his book, Oh, the places you’ll go!, calling it “The Waiting Place, a quite useless place.” Because in fact, you aren't waiting at all if you see the pattern of change for what it is, a place to reboot, the unfolding place of the self.
I tell you this to ponder it: from the experience of standing beside so many people walking the pattern of change, and from my own experience as well, keep your eye on the forward direction, and it will find you.
Once upon a time, nothing happened….and then it does!