When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives
By William R. Miller, Janet C'de Baca
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2001 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these [people] are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.
—Dr. William Silkworth
On the verge of losing everything that matters to him, a lone man leans over the bridge railing, staring down into the icy river far below. The business to which he has devoted his life is in financial ruin and will soon be controlled by his lifelong nemesis. He faces imprisonment, with the bleak prospect of leaving his wife and children to struggle for survival. The short plunge to his death would end his unbearable feelings of disgrace, and in an ironic twist the insurance death benefit would ease his family's financial suffering. Yet George Bailey will not die tonight. Something else, unexpected and implausible, is about to happen that will transform him.
In another wintertime and place, a solitary old man pauses in the doorway to his private quarters, escaping the chill of the street as he fumbles for his key. This day has been no different for him from the ten thousand before it. Yet behind the door something uninvited and unwanted awaits him. This night will be unlike any other of his life, and before it is over Ebenezer Scrooge will be changed forever.
What accounts for the enduring appeal of these two very different fictional characters: George Bailey from the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life and Scrooge from the Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol? Each is linked to the season of Christmas, just after winter solstice, when the darkest days of the year are past and there is just a glimmer of new light on the horizon. Their stories seem to rekindle hope in us, even hope against hope—the vision that new life is possible even and especially when it seems most impossible. Entrenched greed turns to generosity. Exuberant joy ignites from the ashes of ruin.
It would be easy enough to dismiss these stories as wishful thinking, a soothing balm to be applied at least once a year, as needed for relief from reality. They smack of the Hollywood happy ending. Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx would likely dismiss such tales much as they renounced religion as an immature fantasy that covers a darker truth. If these sorts of experiences merely occurred in fiction, no further understanding might be needed beyond an appreciation of their entertainment and palliative value.
The truth, however, is that such experiences do not occur only in fiction. They happen to real people, and not infrequently. They constitute a particular kind of experience with distinctive characteristics. Because contemporary psychology has no name (let alone explanation) for this phenomenon, we chose the term quantum change to describe it, drawing on both the concept of a quantum leap and the unpredictability inherent in quantum mechanics.
SOME HALLMARKS OF QUANTUM CHANGE
Even after ten years of listening to stories and studying quantum change, we find a precise definition elusive. Like spirituality, just when you think you've encircled it with a neat line, it escapes your boundaries. This much seems clear: quantum change is a vivid, surprising, benevolent, and enduring personal transformation. Each of these four elements seems to be important, at least subjectively, to the experience of quantum change, and we discuss them in greater detail in Chapter 2. Quantum change is vivid in the sense that there is an identifiable, distinctive, memorable experience during which the transformation occurred, or at least began. For Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey, it was one Christmas Eve when they were swept up by currents beyond their control. There is no doubt in the person's mind that something extraordinary has happened to them. An element of surprise is also clear. Quantum changes are not comprehensible as ordinary responses to life events. To be sure, external events can intervene in our lives as windfalls or tragedies to produce sudden, vivid and enduring personal changes. Though sympathetic, no one is surprised when a life is changed drastically by external events. It is only the intrusive events themselves that may be unexpected in such cases. Quantum changes are predominantly inner transformations, which often occur in the absence of any salient external event. A third striking element is the profoundly benevolent quality of the experience. To be sure, the immediate experience can be quite unsettling (as with Scrooge's ghosts or George Bailey's angel, Clarence), but there also tends to be an overwhelming sense of loving kindness behind it. Finally, quantum changes are enduring. They seem to be permanent transformations, a one-way door through which there is no going back.
WRITINGS ON QUANTUM CHANGE
Biography and autobiography offer many real-life accounts of quantum change events that were transformative turning points in the lives of people great and small. They are common among spiritual leaders: St. Paul and St. Augustine, Mohandas K. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi), the Buddha, Moses, St. Bernadette, Thesesa of Avila, Simone Weil, Martin Luther, Mary Baker Eddy, and John Wesley. They are found in the lives of social reformers and activists like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Malcolm X, Jane Addams, and Bill Wilson. They have shaped the lives of great writers and thinkers like Count Leo Tolstoy, C. S. Lewis, and Søren Kierkegaard.
Such events were well known and of great interest to William James, who is often credited as the founder of American psychology. In his century-old classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, he described a wide range of experiences and in particular discussed two different forms of change. By far the more common of the two is gradual, step-by-step movement, continual successive approximations as in the opening of a flower. Other changes, James observed, occur in a more sudden, discontinuous manner, and he speculated about types of people who might be prone to each of these kinds of change. Like Bill Wilson, James was careful not to imply that one type of change is superior or preferable to the other. As a psychologist, he was simply interested in understanding how it is that people change so totally and abruptly:
I was effectually cured of all inclination to that sin I was so strongly addicted to that I thought nothing but shooting me through the head could have cured me of it; and all desire and inclination to it was removed, as entirely as if I had been a suckling child; nor did the temptation return to this day.
As we began researching quantum change, we were surprised to discover how few psychologists in the ensuing century had studied, described, or even voiced curiosity about this phenomenon. If it does indeed happen that people undergo pervasive and permanent changes in the course of a few hours or days, surely it is important to understand how this occurs. Yet, with a few exceptions, the response of psychology has been resounding silence. Journals and libraries are filled with knowledge about gradual change that occurs through learning and conditioning. Sudden discrete changes in circumscribed behavior, as through "aha" insight, have been described. Yet there has not even been a term in behavioral science to name this phenomenon of sudden broad transformation that is so widely described in art and biography.
Instead, the scholarly field in which quantum change has been described and studied most often is theology, historically an immediate ancestor of psychology. At the time of William James these were still closely related fields, making it only natural for him to study spiritual experience. It was later that a great chasm opened between them, with only the relatively isolated fields of pastoral counseling and the psychology of religion surviving to bear the family resemblance. It appears that the twenty-first century will witness some reconciliation of psychology and spirituality.
So it was particularly in the writings of theologians that we found good descriptions of this otherwise largely neglected phenomenon. One obviously related religious concept is conversion, which has been studied in some depth. It is indeed the case that religious conversion experiences have some of the attributes described in this book, yet a common finding is that conversions often do not last. Furthermore, as will become apparent in later chapters, quantum changes frequently are not described in religious terms, nor do they usually lead to committed involvement in organized religion. Although they overlap, quantum change is a much larger phenomenon than religious conversion.
James E. Loder in The Transforming Moment described a general pattern for experiences of this kind. They begin with the person being in a state of conflict and what Loder called "a rupture in the knowing context." Something disrupts the way in which the person has been perceiving reality and making sense out of life. This triggers the inner search for a new way of organizing reality, and sometimes in this circumstance "an insight, intuition, or vision appears on the border between the conscious and the unconscious, usually with convincing force." The experience is frequently accompanied by a great emotional release and a deep sense of relief. Then, with time, the person integrates and interprets the experience through language and symbols, and new patterns of thought and action emerge.
STUDYING QUANTUM CHANGE
To dismiss the phenomenon as fiction, one must believe at least that many biographies and autobiographies of great people have been doctored in retrospect with dramatic exaggeration of key transforming moments. Yet one also hears the stories in ordinary lives. It is difficult, in fact, to go through an entire lifetime without encountering at least one such real-life account. In twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, such stories are downright commonplace. Once we opened to the concept and possibility of quantum change, in fact, we began to meet it everywhere. Whenever we spoke on the subject, there were people in the audience who had their own story to tell us.
So we began, in 1989, a process to study quantum change. At that time it remained an open question in our minds whether there was any observable phenomenon to understand. Perhaps, we thought, psychology had been silent on the subject for the good reason that there is nothing to explain. A decade later, that is no longer our question. The rich assemblage of stories represented in this volume has persuaded us that quantum changes are not only real but occur much more often than one might imagine. Instead, we are exploring the ramifications of a whole new set of fascinating questions about the nature of quantum change, its causes, and its meaning.
Perhaps one reason why this phenomenon is not more familiar is that people who have experienced such events are often reluctant to discuss them openly. Many who volunteered for our study voiced grateful relief to learn that there were others with similar experiences, often expressing a desire to meet them. Many had described their experience to only one or two others. Some told us that they had never revealed it to anyone else. Yet all were quite eager to tell us their story, and usually the words came tumbling out like a great unburdening.
Where does one find people who have had quantum changes? The answer turns out to be "almost anywhere," but we did not know that at the outset. We aroused the curiosity of a writer for the Albuquerque Journal, who wrote an engaging feature story with a sketchy description of quantum change in the widely circulated Sunday edition. People who had had such experiences and were willing to describe them in a confidential interview were invited to telephone our office. We had no idea whether we would receive any calls. We offered no payment for participation, and would be asking people to volunteer up to three hours of their time to complete interviews and questionnaires.
To our surprise, the telephone rang for weeks in response to this one article. Beyond many inquiries of general interest, we received eighty-nine calls from people volunteering to participate. A dozen declined when they learned the amount of time required or discovered that we were not paying participants. Another twenty-two later withdrew, were unavailable for interview, or scheduled one or more appointments but never appeared. In the end we completed fifty-five interviews, yielding a rich and moving array of personal accounts. These thirty-one women and twenty-four men were at many different points in the journey, with experiences as recent as one month and as distant as thirty-nine years ago. Most of them came from the Albuquerque area, though some drove a hundred miles or more to participate. As the ripples spread, we also began to receive letters and telephone calls from other states with still more stories.
We were invited to publish a brief report of our findings as a chapter in the American Psychological Association volume Can Personality Change? It seemed a suitable place for our report, precisely because quantum changes often involve significant and seemingly permanent transformations of personality. Scrooge on Christmas morning was not merely behaving in some new ways—he was a different person, and that is the experience of many quantum changers. It's not that each of them became someone else, but rather that the same someone had been transformed. The transformation can be widespread, altering how the person behaves, feels, thinks, and experiences meaning. Our finished chapter provided statistical summaries from the questionnaires and interviews, and some observations about common characteristics of the participants' experiences.
THE REST OF THE STORY
It was clear to us, however, that the chapter did not adequately convey the essence of what we had learned and were learning. We had reported our data in scientific fashion, but we felt far from finished. In fact, we knew at another level that we had barely begun. We were personally captivated by the wonder and mystery of the stories themselves, and drawn by a still deeper story that we sensed within and beneath them. It was as if the scientist in us sat side by side at the campfire with a wide-eyed child entranced by a succession of master storytellers. Yet these stories were not make-believe but real, told by the people who lived them. Those stories became the heart and substance of this book.
Our aim is to tell you the stories in a way that captures the essence of quantum change, revealing some of the common elements and themes that we observed, but without removing the sense of wonder and mystery that remains with us still. The next two chapters round out a context to help you in encountering the stories. In Chapter 2 we summarize briefly what we learned by analyzing information that could be turned into statistics and describe in more detail some of the commonalities we found. This provides a high altitude view of the forest, before we come to a more detailed description of the trees. Chapter 3 begins our walk into the forest. Here we describe what quantum changers told us their lives were like before their experience, and in particular what was happening just before it occurred.
The middle section of this book contains some of the stories themselves. It was difficult for us to decide, from over a thousand pages of transcription, which stories to include as illustrative. We have separated them into two types of quantum change that became evident as we studied them: insights and epiphanies (more on this in Chapter 2). The stories are told in the participants' original words, transcribed from our interviews. We have, however, removed all names and altered other potentially identifying details without changing the essence of each story. We did this to protect the storytellers' anonymity and confidentiality, as we promised when they consented to participate and allowed us to convey their stories to you. Part II describes quantum changes of the insight type, and Part III recounts some epiphany stories.
The fourth and final section was by far the most challenging for us. Here we take yet another perspective by looking back at quantum change, first in the storytellers' own words, and then through our own reflections. We asked the storytellers what was different in their lives after their quantum change and how it had affected them. Their answers are drawn together in Chapter 16. We had anticipated that there would be just one final chapter in which we summed up our own understanding of what had happened, but then the questions grew and two more unexpected chapters emerged. The aftermath of quantum change seemed so consistently positive that we asked ourselves whether it is always so, or whether perhaps there is a shadow side, a darker form of quantum change. Our musings on this subject are found in Chapter 17. Next we do our best in Chapter 18 to make sense, as psychologists, of what it is that happened to these people, of what happens in quantum change. Perhaps you will reach different conclusions, but we have tried to relate commonalities in the stories to modern psychological theory and concepts. Still we were not finished. Something in the stories would not let us go. We close in Chapter 19 by drawing together some possible messages for humankind in general that seem to lie beneath the surface of these extraordinary experiences.
This is a map of the journey that lies ahead. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Quantum Change by William R. Miller, Janet C'de Baca. Copyright © 2001 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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