When I was five years old my life, as I knew it, ended on a clear January night. I stood on the cold sidewalk in my pajamas, watching our house burn after the basement exploded from a natural gas leak. We never went home again. My parents were a young couple with four children and had put their savings into a small start-up business that had yet to see profit. They lost everything, and we were homeless for months. Through great perseverance and ingenuity, they found a new opportunity to start over.
When I’m asked to autograph one of my novels, I often write, “Life has many chapters.” Of all the things I’ve learned in life, I know that change is the strongest truth. My mother used to put it differently. She’d say, “Nothing stays the same for very long.” What she implied was, “And you’d better get good at starting over.”
Grow or DieIt is said that an organism at a steady state is never closer to death. We need to grow or die. We all develop coping mechanisms for managing the inevitable change that is part of being human. But in order to make use of the curve balls life throws us, it’s best if we can do more than just cope. We can only grow when we come to terms with leaving parts of ourselves behind and starting over.
Change By ChoiceNew beginnings can be fun, scary, or somewhere in between. They come in many forms, and I tend to think about them by how easy they are to do. The easiest are those in which we exercise the power of choice.
The I Can’t Wait! Beginning marks the voluntary start of a new phase of life, like when we start our dream job, get married or buy that amazing new piece of technology. But while it can be exhilarating, it also means we have to learn new things and stretch out of our comfort zone, which requires great confidence in our direction. Is there any sweeter satisfaction than identifying a goal and succeeding at it? This type of beginning is full of possibilities. Sacrifice? It doesn’t feel like sacrifice at all because great things are just around the corner.
The I Know I Have To Beginning also brings new opportunity, but we try to avoid its arrival. Like when the kids go off to college, or when the doctor tells us it’s really time to lose those extra pounds. This new beginning requires us to go beyond stretching. It’s when, despite our mind and body’s requirement for homeostasis and predictability, we voluntarily commit to changing the shape of our lives. It might be goodbye to a bad habit, or it might have consequences for others, like leaving the kids with the other parent after divorce, or committing to end a codependent relationship. It requires courage, determination and often perseverance for this new start to be successful, but in closing one door, we simultaneously open another.
Change Beyond ControlThe other types of new beginnings are harder, because we have no control over them. Do these two sound familiar?
The Please Don’t Make Me Do This Beginning is hard because someone or something else has initiated the change. I remember saying after my divorce, “I hope I never again have to work that hard for something I didn’t want.” Starting over when we don’t want to can reinforce our sense of weakness and ineffectiveness in the world. We didn’t ask to lose our jobs or be forced to start a lawsuit against a dishonest contractor. Sure, we can try to turn it into a more positive I Can’t Wait! Beginning, but let’s face it – doing anything against our will can make us feel like a victim. If we’re prone to depression, that can be dangerous because it feeds that inner voice of hopelessness and the feeling that we’re not quite good enough.
The Where Do I Start? Beginning is the hardest. It means the bottom has completely dropped out unexpectedly, and we are scrambling to face a world that has changed overnight. This might be brought about by disaster, illness or death. It can stir up all kinds of feelings, from relief to guilt, from sadness to anger and back again. Every emotion is fair game, and all of them impede the actual act of starting over.