From Worry to Wonder in Crisis & Change

 In Science, Work Flow
Note: A version of this article was published originally as “From Awful to Awesome in Metamorphosis Moments” on May 25, 2010 by Jeffrey Davis, M.A. in Tracking Wonder at Psychology Today. Because numerous clients & readers have shared with me lately some variation of what I call Fertile Confusion, I’m re-posting last week and this week writings related to this topic. 

You could wake up one morning in the middle of your house in the middle of your life and say, “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. How did I get here?” and realize you’re a cockroach – a sort of Inferno-meets-Talking Heads-meets-Kafka moment. In other words, you could realize you no longer are sure who you are, how you belong, or where you’re going. How do you respond?

I’ve been taking stock not only of my responses during the past ten unpredictable years. I’ve also noted the responses of numerous people whom I’ve coached through such episodes. I’m not suggesting that Kafka’s Gregor Samsa could’ve looked in the mirror and said, “Hey! Let’s make the most of this cockroach business!” but I am curious how we can act during periods of deep confusion with less reactivity and more creativity. When you are in such a crisis, after all, you don’t want the same tried and true ways of answering deep questions. You want resourcefulness, inventiveness, openness. You want wonder.

When deeply confused, you want to glimpse the big picture. But reactivity and negative emotions constrict thinking and narrow perception. The studies of professor of psychology Barbara Frederickson of the University of Michigan and author of Positivity confirm the long-standing hypothesis that people in fear and anxiety recognize less of “the big picture” than people experiencing positive emotions such as happiness and wonder. Reactivity feeds frustration and resistance.

Most successful creative people, on the other hand, are distinguished by openness to novelty and perseverance. (See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and Kenneth M. Heilman, Creativity and the Brain among many others).

We might consider this formula:
Reactivity = Closed and Frustrated. Creativity = Open and Persistent.

So, how can we switch from fear to wonder, from awfulness to awesomeness in confusing times? How can we do so not in some phony ‘Walk on the Sunny Side of the Street’ manner but in a way that both feels authentic in our rattling bones and challenges the familiar tendency to over-analyze a situation?

Here are four intuitive tactics I’ve been practicing and sharing with students and clients:

Monitor your daily Reactivity Meter. Don’t wait to be in fertile confusion to start rewiring how your mind reacts.

I have triggers that register on my Reactivity Meter. A slow driver: 6 on the meter. A fast driver on my tail: 7. My daughter still not falling asleep after an hour of my oh-so-well-orchestrated bedtime maneuvers: 7.5 (okay, maybe higher). Someone not keeping her or his word: 8.5. Someone insulting a loved one: 9. The good news is two-fold: Ten years ago, the numbers would have been much higher, and the charge would have lasted much longer. Now the charges are “blips” instead of prolonged sirens.

Note what makes you trigger-happy (or trigger-miserable). By observing the mind’s often visceral reactions, you can witness and thereby choose to mitigate the reactive loop. Check out the suggestions I’ve offered to cool down the over-active creative mind; they also help calm the over-reactive mind.

Lighten Up the Heavy Questions. A metamorphosis moment is no time to scurry for quick answers. To keep confusion “fertile,” listen to and live in the big questions: What am I here for? What is calling me to act well in the world? Who am I without (this person – that job – those possessions)? How can I act to bring more justice in the world?

But give those big questions a Pablo Neruda twist. In Neruda’s last years in the early 1970s – after being exiled from his homeland, Chile – he wrote The Book of Questions, a series of couplets that are, simply, questions of wonder. One of my favorites is
Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from sunlight?

That’s an adult’s question. Huey helicopters at the time were the symbol of the U.S. Army’s attacks in Vietnam. Neruda’s question helps us imagine another use for these machines whose movements likely derived from hummingbirds’ deft aeronautics.

So, take your heavy question about what you want to do with your life and wonder:
What color eggs would I hatch if I were a new kind of bird next year? 

Answers won’t come immediately, but a time of fertile confusion is no time to be a know-it-all. Living in wondrous questions might bring levity and openness to creative possibilities. From these images might come wholly fresh answers for how to be and relate in the world.

Play the Head-Spinning Holy S&*t! Game. Since a teenager, I’ve played some variation of what I now call the “Head-Spinning Holy S&*t Game.” Driving down the freeway, I’d wonder, “What if this road were the black tongue of some mega-dragon that gulped all of these cars down its throat?” and “If the Earth spins at 67,000 miles per hour around the sun, and if that constant spin and the other planets’ cooperation are all that’s keeping this car from flying off the road straight up into the sky, then what did I miss in driver’s ed?” (No wonder my family thought I was a space cadet.)

Now I apply the same deep questioning to more “adult” confusing times. A client complained he couldn’t focus on his next novel because he kept fretting his wife might leave him. He had built his identity around being her partner. He couldn’t fathom life without her. “Let’s try,” I said. I asked him to imagine waking up without her. What would he do? Where would he live? He said he’d likely not have much money since he couldn’t concentrate so he’d take his paltry savings, go to India (where he had traveled several times), and just wander and study for a while. The image brought him, oddly, relief.

We both recognized the fantasy as fantasy, but I suggested that whenever his mind tried to worry about his wife leaving him that he instead imagine himself thriving in India, unencumbered and content. He did so.

The fantasy helped him not waste time as he completed writing his novel in a flurry although it didn’t keep the inevitable from happening: His wife did leave him. He gained, though, the recognition that he’d be okay, that he could be resourceful and creative during one of the most confusing – and ultimately transformational – periods of his life.

The game is a way to transform panic into radical possibility.

Try it: Imagine the worst-case “What-if” scenario, and imagine yourself or a situation transforming into something radiant and new – however irrational the image. Imagine the ground literally quaking open beneath you and your being able to fly by using your own wits and social resources. Keep watering that image like a seed incubating through a personal winter.

“Imagination is the foundation of everything that is uniquely and distinctively human,” Sir Kent Robinson writes in his new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Creativity, he notes, comes in applying imagination. But before we can apply imagination, we need to plant deep images seeded with wonder.

Feel Dawn Down Deep. Don’t let your mind keep your body in bed. Get up early. Jim Citrin – Senior Director of an executive search firm and author of The Dynamic Path – writes about the importance of executives’ early morning routines, and author of The Power of Less and the Zen Habits blog Leo Babauta also recommends the habit. Yogis, past and present, consider dawn a sacred time because the mind teeters between wake and dream. It is a time of day rife with wonder. Those of us seeking creative responses to troubling conundrums might take note.

If you wake up an hour early, you can let yourself lull in your dreams’ residue for potential insight. During the day, then, you might be aware of images from last night’s dreams that dart like gold fish across your conscious mind.

“I wake to sleep and take my waking slow,” Theodore Roethke writes. Deep transformation rarely happens suddenly. Treat each morning’s waking up as part of your slow awakening. Savor the time of day that sings with promise and potential. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Thoreau notes, “not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” And, I’ll add, by remembering dawn. Remember dawn’s residue even during noon’s troubles and dusk’s traffic jams and midnight’s howls.

Granted, these ideas offer you no fool-proof four-step plan to navigate fertile confusion. They challenge you to move into that ethereal zone we might tag “intuition.” How useful is intuition during such cockroach crises?

Well, psychologist Richard Wiseman studied 400 exceptionally lucky people and wrote about the results in his book The Luck Factor: The Science of the Lucky Mind. He discovered that they shared four common attributes, among them effectively listening to their intuition.

When we’re down and out, we could use a little luck, and wonder just might be the confused soul’s good luck charm.

Have some tips & experiences of your own? Join the conversation below.

See you in the woods,


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