Dealing With Lifequakes

By NANCY PATRICK

I recently watched an interview between Fareed Zakaria and author Bruce Feiler on CNN. Feiler’s new book Life Is in the Transitions presents the theory that life follows an experiential and twisted road rather than a linear path. I remembered that as a child, my son enjoyed a series of books entitled Choose Your Own Adventure. The first part of each book would set up a scenario for the main character and take the character to a point of decision. Then the reader could choose among various paths to finish the story. Needless to say, each second half of the story completed the first half in a different way, depending on whether the reader chose path A, B, or C.

Feiler suggests that life sometimes resembles the choices of the Choose Your Own Adventure series except that we often do not have the choices ourselves. Our situations often result from circumstances over which we have no control. Feiler, along with several other writers, calls these serendipitous happenings “lifequakes.” Similar to earthquakes, lifequakes may arrive unexpectedly, suddenly, destructively, or randomly. These incidents, sometimes negative and sometimes positive, illustrate that we often find ourselves in a much more complicated situation than the one for which we had hoped. 

For example, most children will experience a universal lifequake when they begin their formal educations. Neighborhoods, schools, teachers, friends, parents, and other relationships will transition a preschooler to a wider world of authority and structure. The very nature of a school—whether public, parochial, or home school—will directly impact a child’s world. A public school will expose the child to a much broader world than a parochial one whereas a home school will limit the child’s world to what the parents want their experience to include. None of these options is necessarily better than the others, but they differ greatly, and, therefore, a child’s life experiences in the selected environment will help determine how the individual will react to future lifequakes.

After a person’s formal primary/secondary education, the next major situation relates to young adulthood—college (major), job, marriage, or military. Life’s fragility becomes obvious as we examine what these situations might entail. People face all of those options in various ways. If you can’t afford college right away, military service awards GI benefits that include college tuition. When veterans go to college, their experiences will differ greatly from those students straight out of high school. Some people marry early, find a job, and begin their families immediately. Those experiences differ from those of students who choose to go to college, marry, and work part-time as they pursue their educations. All of these examples illustrate the wide variety of options available as young people enter adulthood. 

In our middle twenties, most of us begin to figure out what we want for our long-term futures. Two major decisions relate to what we want as a family. Do we want a marriage and children? Do we prefer singleness and independence? Where will a family fit in with our career choices? What if our spouse wants a career as much as we do? What financial goals will we pursue? Does our spouse share our financial values? Does religion play a role in our lives?

This phase of life can generate potential powerful lifequakes, depending on our choices. The current divorce rate in America has actually gone down in the last decade, but statistics reveal that much of the decline results from fewer marriages as more and more people cohabitate rather than marry. Regardless of whether a couple legally marries or not, they tend to live as a family unit. That means they may have children together or with other partners, thus creating a blended familial situation.

Many relationships do not last long-term. Changing living arrangements and housemates can confuse children and create insecurity in their lives. Siblings and parents, even grandparents, become steps and halves as relationships evolve into a blur of boundaries. Adults must remember that their children watch their behavior and follow patterns they have set. Parents who have reared their children in unstable homes should recognize that they may have predisposed their children to a similar pattern of difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, keeping a job, following rules, or attaining emotional stability.  Every time the child moved to a different house with a different mom or dad or brother or sister or had to change schools during term, that child went through a lifequake.

Some of the most difficult lifequakes have nothing to do with our choices. We can’t blame anyone, including ourselves, when we have the unexpected and undeserved misfortune to develop a debilitating disease or give birth to a special-needs child. These lifequakes will reveal our substance.  I have observed the worst and the best of humanity in families who have experienced these shattering situations. 

One of my sisters-in-law was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when she was in her late twenties. She and her husband had two young children at the time. I watched with amazement and admiration as my brother-in-law chose to stay with his wife and children and care for them throughout the remainder of my sister-in-law’s life. That care-giving situation lasted nearly thirty years until my sister-in-law died in her early sixties. Only people who have experienced this level of dependence from another person can fully appreciate the degree of love and sacrifice the caregiver exhibits.

I once had a neighbor whose second son experienced loss of oxygen during birth, resulting in cerebral palsy. As the child grew from a baby to toddler to adolescent to young adult, my husband and I marveled at the parents’ devotion, provision, care, and commitment to provide their son with everything to ensure him a life as fulfilling as possible. I remember the dad once saying that he would never have an empty nest, and I thought about not only the sadness but also the love expressed in that statement. His son would never become an independent adult; however, his parents would provide him a home as long as they could and would make provisions for him if they predeceased him.

Perhaps one of the last lifequakes we have to deal with relates to our elderly parents—those whose bodies have lived past meaningful existence. I spent the hardest years of my life dealing with my parents during their last ten years. A caregiver cannot calculate the emotional toll. I had two of them at different stages of mental and physical dependency. Their constant problems created a situation in which I had to make unpleasant decisions for their protection and safety. In addition, the physical demands of getting two elderly people to doctors’ appointments and keeping their house clean and safe and running errands caused me to develop some physical problems that resulted in my own hospitalization. 

Lifequakes can occur at any time in any life. No one has invented a vaccine to protect us against them. Our only way through the upheavals involves living through the quake one day at a time. Unfortunately, we can’t plan too far ahead because everything becomes tentative. Life’s smooth roads and lazy lanes can become hazardous, icy streets in a flash. Every person has to figure out a way to build up emotional, spiritual, and physical strength to endure the tempestuous seasons ahead. 

 Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing

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