“The last thing you want to be is a well-adjusted person.” Those may be some of the only words I remember verbatim from my undergraduate education. They came from Lenore Bierbaum, one of my psychology professors, and they certainly got my attention. But then she went on to say, “What you want to be is a person who adjusts well.” Her point was that social and psychological adjustment is never static, never something to accomplish; it’s always dynamic, always in process through the endless changes of life.
There are all kinds of changes we’re given to handle in life. Some are subtle, I wrote recently, like the slow shift from one season of life to another as we grow older. Others are abrupt, punctuating life with jolts or turns, stops and new starts – a graduation, a significant birthday, a job change, a marriage, a birth or death, the retirement of a beloved pastor – each with its mix of gains and losses.
All change, whatever form it takes, is part of the natural order of life and has something to teach. Every change is a doorway into a deeper experience and appreciation of life, if we will use it. How can we use it well? How can we turn a moment of loss and gain into an experience of creative transition from what has been to what is becoming? In my experience there have been three key aspects to adjusting well.
First, we keep driving the truck. After my divorce from a previous marriage, I loaded my belongings, hitched up the car, and started driving from Buffalo toward my new home in Vermont. It wasn’t a happy trip. I was leaving behind not only my former life but everything we had hoped and planned for the future. And though I knew my destination as a place on a map, I had no idea what it would hold for me. All I could do was drive the truck.
Through long miles on the Thruway, my thoughts turning to what if and what might have been, I just kept driving the truck. Along dark and lonely roads in the Adirondacks that night, I told myself to just keep driving the truck. Getting up the next morning with thoughts turning toward a new beginning that I couldn’t see, I knew the only thing for me to do was keep driving the truck. During almost the whole trip, I just kept driving the truck.
Then I came to Essex and my first view of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. It was one of those perfect summer days you dream about – a green landscape bathed in lots of sun under a bright blue sky dotted with white cumulus clouds, a scene suddenly full of promise and hope. And I felt a little like I imagine Moses must have felt at the top of Mt. Nebo when he caught his first glimpse of the Promised Land. I knew then, I had come home. And I learned that when the life you’ve known collapses and there’s barely any clue about what the future holds, and the road is long and dark and uncertain, you just have to keep driving the truck until you get to Mt. Nebo and catch your first clear glimpse of what’s ahead.
The second thing we have to do is decide not to judge the story until the story is complete. Changes, even major changes, are not interruptions in life; they are the essence of life. Life is one continuous flow of interrelated changes, each moment part of a larger story that’s full of surprises and new revelations. We don’t know what it’s about until after we’ve read the final sentence of the last chapter.
Take Joseph, for example. Betrayed, attacked, threatened with death by his brothers, sold to a passing caravan, and delivered to a life of slavery in a foreign land, Joseph’s life could hardly have gotten worse, and he might have easily given up. But by the end of his story, when he’s in a position to rescue his people from severe famine, Joseph is able to say, “God has sent me here to keep you and your families alive so that you will become a great nation. Yes, it was God who sent me here, not you” (Gen. 45:7-8 NLT)! In the end he gained a longer perspective on the whole story of his life.
Seventeenth-century poet Frances Quarles wrote, “My soul, sit thou a patient looker-on; / Judge not the play before the play is done: / Her plot has many changes; every day / Speaks a new scene; the last act crowns the play.” Don’t judge the play before the play is done. Don’t judge too soon life’s curious mix of gains and losses. We don’t know today where this change is leading in the end.
Finally, we need to step into the sea of change in faith, trusting God to make our way clear. When Israel began their journey from slavery to a life of freedom, there was one particular moment when it seemed all hope had vanished. Caught between Pharaoh’s army behind them and an impassable sea ahead of them, there seemed nowhere to turn. And the scripture tells us that after what must have been some agonized prayer, “The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground” (Exod. 14:22).
“How could it be both sea and dry ground,” the old rabbis wondered. And the answer they came up with was that it was sea when they stepped into it, and only after they waded into it did it become dry ground. My own experience tells me that it may not have become dry ground until they had waded into it up to their necks. Or up to their noses!
God usually doesn’t make our way clear until we have committed ourselves to the journey. God doesn’t open a way for us until we have trusted God enough to step out where we see no way ahead. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase,” Martin Luther King, Jr., said, or something like it. And someone on staff at the King Center went on to say, “Faith is the key that unlocks the treasure chest God has placed inside each and every one of us, the key that unlocks the doors to endless opportunities.”
Every morning is a fresh beginning. Old things pass away and new things spring into being. And all of them are part of the constantly unfolding life that God is creating and calls good. It’s time to step into the change that ushers in the future. It’s time to get our feet wet. ▪