Moving From Crisis to Awakening

During the past year, as the nation has struggled with its financial health, I have been fighting my own battle against an incurable form of esophageal cancer. It shouldn't be this way, but, as the sand runs from my glass, I find myself not simply surviving but actually thriving. Fully alert to life's preciousness and fragility, I have never been more awake, more alive. The last 12 months have been among the best of my life.

This experience of springtime in winter has led me to wonder: Might the same approach to living that has buoyed me during my personal trials—want what you have, do what you can, and be who you are—lead us to appreciate gifts that in easier financial times, we tended to take for granted, especially the gifts of life and love?

I am confident that it can. In fact, I've seen many instances of this very phenomenon in my own New York City congregation, which I've served for three decades. Almost everyone has been hurt to some degree by the economic meltdown. But if this crisis has broken some people's spirits, it has caused others to meet the same challenge in ways that are proving redemptive.

Our Response is Key

In Greek drama, the "crisis" is not some outside event that brings the hero down. The moment of crisis is instead the moment of decision. What happens to us doesn't turn our life story into a tragedy. It is how we respond to what happens to us that shapes the outcome of our lives.

For instance, facing new limitations imposed by a much thinner wallet, we may pine away in a house of ruin. Or we may change our priorities, and find meaning that before was hidden behind all the gloss and glitter.

While one person will drown her sorrows in drink, another chose this moment to stop drinking and look back on it as the most significant, life-changing event of his life.

Forging New Connections

One, mortified by embarrassment and failure, will isolate himself, cut his lifelines and languish Another will recognize his own tears in another's eyes, reach out and make new, stronger human connections.

One woman, shaken from her accustomed routine by events she can only regret, will nonetheless find herself liberated from the rut she had been running in. Once she finds her footing, she will begin taking risks that she might otherwise never have contemplated. Having sleepwalked through her recent life, she will awaken to old dreams and new possibilities.

Why? Because a glass of cold water was thrown in her face, as it has been thrown in all our faces. The same glass of cold water will leave some of us feeling insulted and victimized; others it will awaken and ultimately refresh.

Outwitting Your Fears

Change is difficult, of course. It cannot help but raise the temperature of our lives and also foster fear. Anxiety and dread arise from the feeling of not being in control of the many frightening things that might befall us. But we can do something positive to make change work for us, not against us.

To begin with, don't fight your fears. Outwit them instead. Turn your mirror into a window. Look out, not in.

The more we obsess on our fears, in our very attempts to control them, the more dread and anxiety take their purchase on us. Home becomes a moated castle, and the castle, soon, a prison tower. Life is reduced to a grim business, our forays into the future at once manipulative and guarded. Fearing every transition from certainty to uncertainly, we devote our full energy to protecting ourselves against loss. The more we fear, the more frightening life turns out to be.

You Have the Power

It doesn't have to be that way, regardless of how hard things may be right now. To keep fear from establishing permanent residency in the habitation of your heart, three practical ideals commend themselves. And each lies fully within our power.

First, want what you have. Wanting what we have mutes the pangs of desire, which visits from the future to cast a shadow on the present. Instead of praying for what you lack, think to pray for all those things you take for granted: your loved ones, your health, the gift of life itself. Think of this as thoughtful wishing, thinking to wish for what is ours right now to savor. Unlike wishful thinking, thoughtful wishes always come true.

Second, do what you can. Doing what we can occupies our minds on that which is possible, no more and no less, thereby filling the present with conscious, practical endeavor.

Learn to Cherish Life

Finally, be who you are. Being who we are means refusing the fool's gold of self-illusion (including, in this instance, the illusion that our riches would keep growing forever). It requires, and therefore fosters, integrity, which above all other qualities, makes us good company for others and ourselves.

Perhaps it's high time to lift our eyes up from the stock ticker and grim headlines and remember how fragile life is and how precious each chance we have to learn and grow must therefore be. Before our time runs out, let us not overlook the daily opportunities we are given: to offer up our thanks; to celebrate the gift of life; to serve, hope, and love. Otherwise, we'll miss the chance to turn this crisis into a life-changing awakening.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.