Wisdom//

Finding the Way Forward in a Season of Setbacks

It's true: Windows do open when doors close.

Konstantin Zibert/ Shutterstock
Konstantin Zibert/ Shutterstock

On a Tuesday many years back, in the dead of winter in Ukraine, my marriage ended. On Wednesday, my agent emailed to say I’d sold my first book based on a proposal and single chapter. I was about to become a single mother — and one who needed to bang out a book I felt in no position to write. Outside, day after day, it snowed in swirls. Inside, day after day, I wondered, where on earth do I go from here?

There’s an old saying that when a door closes, a window opens. We are told that while the life we envisioned is not happening, along will come a different opportunity. People offer this metaphor as if with each setback, a promising window flooded with light will appear, flinging open with a beckoning, glorious Plan B. In my experience, it’s not that simple. There may be no window to be found for a while. Or it’s a dim window at the top of a wall, like what you’d find in a cell block, hard to reach and so small you have to crawl through the opening. Then there’s what’s on the other side — not sunny deliverance, but a vague destination with its own closed doors en route. You may try to draw yourself a map of where you think you’re going, but it’s often wrong, like the work of a deluded cartographer with no sense of direction. Well, you may think, you’ll just have to figure it out as you go. And you’d be right about that.

I’ve been thinking of that time in Ukraine lately, because those close to me have experienced a season of setbacks — illness, job rejections, college admission rejections, foiled plans, and flaring anxiety. Yes, we’re all happy to be done with 2020 and hopeful about this new year, but much of what we try in venturing forth won’t work out as expected. The door may not yield to our wishes. Maybe a dim little window, if there is one, isn’t yet discernible. Or maybe it is, and we’ve climbed through, but the other side is tough going. Alien. Uncomfortable. It’s enough to generate nostalgia for the old familiar room we once wanted to leave or to mourn once again the door that closed, when the shiny brass knob was just within reach. Where, we wonder, do we go from here?

I have a few thoughts on navigating disappointment, with the caveat that advice, like maps, may not chart the course as cleanly as we’d like.

First, know that everyone gets doors slammed in their faces from time to time, so you are not alone. Every. Single. Person. It’s OK to grieve the loss of what didn’t happen as hoped. The loss is your loss, but it doesn’t make you a loser.

Second, you may have to sit with the disappointment for a while before you can even think about windows. That might take the form of summoning self compassion or reflecting on what happened and where you might want to go next. The window may be big and beautiful when it appears, or it may be tiny, with bars you must wrestle open. That’s OK. Wide open doors and easy paths are not all they cracked up to be, if they exist at all.

Third, this may be an anxious time, and maybe no amount of brain-generated self-talk will achieve a state of mind where you can search for or see a window. For me, 2020 taught the lesson that sometimes I need to approach hard times less cerebrally. Breathing exercises, for example, can be a surprisingly efficacious path to resilience. They reset our emotions. If we follow the breathing patterns associated with certain feelings – like slow exhalation as a manifestation of calm – we reduce our heart rate and feel better. How we carry ourselves or sit at our desks also shapes, not just reflects, our mood. As Amanda Blake writes in her book, Your Body Is Your Brain, we can reset our physical self to reset our mental self. She notes, “Your gestures, comportment and sensations affect every action you take and even the very fabric of your worldview. Your body is an instrument — your only instrument — of both perception and action. It affects every last thing you see, say, and do… We don’t see the world as it is — we see the world as we are.” By adjusting our posture or breathing, we can improve our attitude.

Last, if you find a window of opportunity, expect to be challenged in the changes it brings. I don’t say that to be negative, but rather to reframe our relationship with the inevitable bumps in the road and closed doors of the future. They are part of the journeys that are worth making. It’s useful to remind ourselves that when we are comfortable and assimilated, we can’t truly know what defines us. We can’t fully understand or grow beyond our current selves by staying put. If you’re feeling at a crossroads or lost on a new path, you’re learning something about who you are and what you might become, and that’s a powerful way to live.

I often think of Ann Patchett’s remarkable little book based on a commencement speech: What Now? In it, she writes, “The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way. What now is not a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow. There’s a time in our lives when we crave the answers. But there is another time, a better time, when we see our lives as a series of choices, and what now represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life. It’s up to you to choose a life that will keep expanding. It takes discipline to remain curious; it takes work to be open to the world — but oh my friends, what noble and glorious work it is.”

That winter in Ukraine, when I didn’t know what to do next, I called my brother. He’s always been good in a crisis. Thankfully, he didn’t try to perk me up with thoughts of windows opening. Nor did he say anything gratingly peppy, like setbacks are a setup for a comeback. (While these things may be true, they are NOT a great way to empathize with someone in a tough spot.)

“Make a list,” he told me instead. “A list of what you can do. Just put it on a piece of paper, in order, and start with the first thing.”

I thought about that as I listened to an odd crackling on the line, which I chalked up to a bad connection or maybe poorly executed surveillance. (I briefly imagined a wire-tapping eavesdropper, rolling eyes at my mess of a life.)

“OK” I finally said.

I hung up and wrote a list that covered getting a lawyer, figuring out how to get back to the U.S., deciding where to live, looking for schools and childcare, finding a job… and oh yes, writing a book. The list made me cry. As the days passed, though, it didn’t look like the end of the world anymore. It seemed like a series of choices. There was a little light, a window or two discernible in the darkness of my disappointment and fear. I told myself that maybe pulling together a book when so much was falling apart would lead somewhere better. It eventually did.

It takes courage to step away from the place where we are stuck just now, and it’s even harder if the Plan A door has been slammed in our faces. It takes real effort to process rejection, let alone struggle through a window. And once we’re on the next journey, it takes faith to keep going in the wilderness outside. It doesn’t always feel like the noble and glorious work of which Patchett speaks, but it is.

If you are a disappointed person or you’re supporting a disappointed person, it’s worth acknowledging these hard realities. It paradoxically makes them more manageable.

That said, every cliche about resilience in the face of rejection gets repeated because it’s true. Windows do open when doors close. Over time, we learn these openings aren’t our consolation prizes. They turn out to be a much richer gift: a passage to a version of ourselves that is both different and greater than we ever dared expect. We will have to figure it out as we go, but isn’t that always the way?

Originally published on LinkedIn.com

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