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First Place, Inspirational category
ACP Excellence in Publishing Awards, 2012
From satisfying work to sudden unemployment. From a happy marriage to a hurtful divorce. From caring for the kids to caring for an aging parent. These are just a few of the countless ways that life hurls us into the chaos of change, where our certainties are shaken and our faith may even begin to falter. But what if we saw the chaos—the “mess”—of our lives not as something to fear or eschew, but as something to be embraced?
In The Other Side of Chaos, best-selling author Margaret Silf looks closely at the subject of chaos—and the intrinsic transition it brings—through the lens of Christian spirituality. Through Scripture stories and verses, personal accounts, and other anecdotes, Silf helps us develop an authentic “spirituality of transition” that leads us to live out life’s changes constructively, creatively, and confidently.
Ultimately, The Other Side of Chaos gives us the courage to trust God when life is breaking down and to see our messes not as something to be rescued from, but as something that will help us break through to a place where God makes all things new.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Margaret Silf is a popular retreat director and the author of numerous books, including Compass Points, Inner Compass, and Close to the Heart. She lives in Scotland.
Read an Excerpt
The South African poet Rushdy Siers, author of the poem quoted in the epigraph to this book, knows about the chaotic world of change and transition. Born in 1952 in District Six, a neighborhood of central Cape Town, he grew up in the vibrant community of people for whom District Six was “home,” a community comprising all kinds of folk who didn’t quite fit the pattern that the then government of South Africa wanted to impose.
His neighbors might have been former slaves, immigrants, workers, and merchants. They would have been mainly “coloured”—South Africans who were neither black nor white, including many Muslims, and the Cape Malays, who had been brought there by the Dutch East India Company—as well as a few black Xhosa residents, some Indians, and a few white Afrikaners. Perhaps they had one thing in common: they didn’t fit into the official boxes, and maybe that in itself was one of the reasons the community was so lively and close-knit.
When Siers was a teenager, the apartheid government suddenly decided to “clear” District Six. The residents were evicted and forcibly removed to a bleak area some fifteen miles away, called Cape Flats. Their homes were bulldozed, a living community demolished. And, as Siers expresses so succinctly in his poem, their world, which was lived out “between a mountain and a sea”—in the shadow of the mighty Table Mountain, and on the shore where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet and sometimes collide—was destroyed.
The transition that he describes, with such ironic understatement, as “somehow we were dislodged,” they would see in hindsight as the very point at which they began to set themselves free. And this freedom would eventually bring them back together in a new kind of community and transform the story itself into a lesson for all of us about the power of change.
As we make the journey through this book, we will explore what it is like for us, too, to go through upheaval, which often brings unwanted change in its wake and forces us through the narrow gateways of transition.
I hope that most of our upheavals won’t be as painful or as brutal as the one described in Siers’s poem. Yet my own experiences of change encourage me to believe that it is often precisely those times when we are “dislodged” and forced to leave our accustomed comfort zones to embrace (or resist!) a new phase of our lives that we really do receive an invitation to “begin to set ourselves free.”
What lies on the other side of chaos? Can an apparently negative experience of change be, for us, too, the catalyst for a new beginning, calling us forward into deeper freedom? No one knows, and none can predict. We will discover what new growth may be sprouting in our lives only if we risk the journey that takes us, like reluctant time travelers, hurtling through the uncharted universe of change.
Transitions are never comfortable.
They Make Your Feet Ache
You find yourself dragging crates and boxes around a new home, and what is supposed to be a familiar, cozy living space now looks like it would qualify for UN disaster relief.
You used to settle into your corner of the office in the morning, and now you are running a marathon before breakfast, trying to satisfy the unrelenting demands of a new baby.
You are trudging the unfamiliar streets of a town you hardly know, trying to locate a supermarket, a dentist, a post office. After the third time of circling the place, your feet won’t tolerate a single further step—but where did you park the car?
They Make Your Head Ache
It’s a great new house, but how do you get the telephone, broadband, even electricity and water installed? Where did you leave that long list of people to tell of your new address? How are you going to get your furniture up those stairs? How will you ever fit the contents of all those boxes onto so few shelves?
You thought you really wanted this new job. But now that you’re here, do you really think you can handle it? You were so sure you loved this person. But now that you’ve made vows for life, you realize that life is a very long time indeed, and you may not even make it through to lunch without a falling-out.
You had your life together financially. Then you lost your job. What now? Where do you begin? Unpaid and unpayable bills? Anxieties about health care? Too old to start over? Too late to teach the old dog new tricks?
Worst of All, They Make Your Heart Ache
The last child has flown the nest, and you realize just how much you love her, miss her. You long for your son to come back to visit, yet fear that he might not.
You were someone in your job, a respected colleague. Now you are stuck at home with a screaming child, and you feel that you don’t have a place in the “real world” any more. You are recently retired, and suddenly you have become invisible. No one asks your opinion any more. You feel unvalued, unwanted, unnecessary.
You wake up in the small hours and wonder whether, after all, you should have stayed in that crumbling relationship, hung on to your independence, remained childless and pursued your career instead, let the career go and had a child instead. Or you never even fall asleep, because your heart is churning and yearning for the partner who has died, for the home that the bankers repossessed, for the place where you knew the neighbors and spoke the same language.
Transitions Make You Ache Everywhere
They make you ache, in every joint and muscle and in every brain cell, and in every fiber of your heart.
Some of these transitions we freely choose. Some are thrust upon us against our will. Some just creep up quietly while we’re not looking and take us unawares. But they all have this in common: they change us, whether we like it or not, and they usually don’t give us the option of going back. Things will never be quite the same again, whatever course we choose going ahead. The flight path of time’s arrow is irreversible. It moves only in one direction: forward.
So what does forward mean for us? Where are the meaning and the hope in all the disruption? Where are the petals of promise among the fallen leaves of our losses and regrets? Are times of transition simply chaotic periods that we have to survive as best we can, or might they mean more—much more—than that? Might they actually be times when something radically new is gestating within us and painfully coming to birth?
We all experience personal transitions as life unfolds. But today, the whole human family is also, collectively, living through times of unprecedented and accelerating change. We may feel as though all our old certainties are being stripped away. Our lives may feel dislocated and frighteningly insecure. We may find ourselves wondering, “Where is God in all of this? Where is there any solid ground? How can we navigate these rapids?”
When my daughter was born, I had already been married and had worked in the corporate world for many years. But then I was—to my dismay—classified by the obstetricians as an “elderly primagravida.” (Whatever happened to “Margaret”?) I turned, almost overnight, from a competent team leader in a responsible position at work into a helpless new arrival in the prenatal clinic. From being well informed about most aspects of my job, I was pitched into a situation where I knew nothing (I remember trawling the medical books to find out what “NAD” scribbled on my notes might signify and discovering, to my great relief, that it meant “nothing abnormal detected”). In fact, I was traveling at high speed in the fast lane, from confidence to bewilderment. I was out of control of my own life. My state of ignorance, and impotence, would only increase, I was to find out, after my child had actually been delivered, and with the additional weight of responsibility I didn’t dare contemplate. No one can prepare you for the total life upheaval that a newborn brings, and the same can be said for most of our life transitions.
Why would I ever have chosen to put myself in the path of that kind of physical and emotional tsunami? And I did choose it. She was a much-wanted child. Well, now, thirty years later, I could give you a thousand reasons why it was a good choice—probably the best choice I ever made. Her arrival brought new life not just for her but for everyone in the family, and for many more people whose lives she would touch. Ironically, she is an obstetrician herself now, delivering new explosions of change and growth into the world on a daily basis.
What if the other transitions in our lives were also births? What if all that pain and grief, that loss of control, that questioning and doubting, that fear and anxious anticipation, were also the labor pains through which something new and special might be breaking through?
Is there any meaning in all the madness?
In the pages that follow, I invite you to risk a journey into, and through, the crazy universe of change, both in your own life and in the life of the world. We will explore something of what change means for us and how we might live our transitions constructively and creatively. The journey will ask us to risk walking this shifting landscape of change and transition without trying to pin our life—or our faith—down into neat securities. It will challenge us to acknowledge that the state of change and flux is the reality that underpins all existence, and that if God is real, then God is right there in the flux.
We will take the journey lightly, knowing that the subject is far from light. We will do this because, as physicians have told us often enough, “It will hurt less if you try to relax”!
But we will also take the journey in faith—not the kind of faith that knows all the answers and has mapped out the right and proper paths, but the faith that says simply, “I don’t know, but I trust.” It doesn’t matter what name you give to the power in whom you place your trust. It matters that you are willing to open your heart to a wider, fuller reality, one in which over time, or perhaps beyond time, you will know that ultimately every painful harrowing of your life’s field, and every anxious tending of new and tender growth, are leading to a harvest that you can’t begin to imagine.
Crisis: Danger or Opportunity?
I arrived back late at the nearest railway station one night and took a taxi to my home. The driver was from Iraq and had settled in England with his young family several years earlier. He started to tell me about his experiences of life in the West, many of them negative, and, rightly gauging my age to be a little more than his own, he asked me whether life in England had always been the way he and his family were experiencing it. My answer was immediate and definitive. “I grew up in a completely different world,” I told him. “I hardly recognize life here today as the same planet, let alone the same country I grew up in.” What a difference a few decades make! And the past few decades have made, surely, a quite unprecedented difference. Life seems to be moving faster than any of us can react. There appears to be no chance of keeping up with the rate of change, and our teenagers inhabit a youth culture that is completely alien to anything we ever knew ourselves. The only consolation is that in another few years, they will be the ones who can’t handle the technology and will have to rely on their own three-year-olds to set up whatever device supersedes the DVD player.
My conversation with the taxi driver reminded me of some notes from a course I once attended on listening skills. The British Jesuit Gerard Hughes offered us the notes, which were titled “On Being Completely Baffled.” We all laughed at the title, but the laughter was an expression of relief. Here was a proven master in the skill of spiritual accompaniment telling us frankly not only that was it normal to feel baffled in light of what we might hear but also that bafflement was “a good place to be.” I have had plenty of cause to remember that wisdom as the years have moved on, and never more so than in the present situation in which the human family finds itself.
Surely the Chinese curse is upon us: “May you live in interesting times!” And the Chinese ideogram for crisis also comes to mind, with its combination of the symbols representing “danger” and “opportunity”—a combination we might see reflected all around us in our world today, to say nothing of in our own personal situations.
Everywhere we turn we see the immediacy of the danger. Across the street a house stands empty, repossessed by the bank because the people who called it home defaulted on their mortgage repayments. The elderly man who walks his dog in the park has lost his savings and worries how he will live on his diminished pension. The newlyweds down the road are caught in a spiraling debt trap, along with so many of their generation, seduced into living on expensive credit that seemed as easy as pushing a piece of plastic into a machine. Families in the flatlands are mopping up the debris after yet another unseasonal flood, in spite of their best personal efforts to stem the tide of global warming. And there are neighbors you just don’t see anymore. Perhaps they have curled up in despair.
Danger! We see the possibility of catastrophic climate change; the threat of worldwide economic meltdown and the disappearance of all our financial securities; the constant and increasing danger of famine, flood, drought, and wide-scale starvation; the breakdown of trust in many of our institutions, including our religious institutions. Can humankind survive and deal with this level of breakdown?
The danger is obvious. But where is the “opportunity”? What if opportunity really is the flip side of danger in every crisis? Let’s look at a few of the possible opportunities that may be concealed beneath these dangers:
- The opportunity to pool all our human intellectual resources to reverse the effects of global warming and rediscover ourselves as responsible living beings in a living planetary system
- The opportunity to embrace the fact that we are all interdependent and that the needs of any of us are the responsibility of all of us
- The opportunity to confront the greed and exploitation inherent in our current financial systems, to sit down together and work out a revisioning of how we conduct our economies
- The opportunity to face questions about what faith really means, how we will express it, and whether it really needs complex and corruptible organizations to make it work
That breakthrough is the paschal mystery of death transcended by resurrection. But are we willing to live true to the full implications of the faith in it that we profess and then let it play itself out? Are we willing to accept that things do break down in our personal lives and in the life of the world, and trust that this might really be the beginning of a breakthrough? Or will we try desperately to hold everything together, or put it back together, to how it was before it fell apart? In terms of our Christian story, we might ask whether we are willing to allow the death to happen, trusting in the resurrection. Or will we abort the paschal mystery by trying in vain to maintain the status quo, to hold on desperately to what is no longer leading to life, and thereby block the way to resurrection?
This is a question that will keep presenting itself as we move on in our journey through and beyond the chaos of change and transition. Are we hoping that God, or faith, will rescue us from the breakdown and repair the damage, or dare we trust that God is inviting us to engage in the coming to birth of something new, in and through the labor pains of loss and disintegration?
But let’s enjoy a bit of light relief. Let’s go back to the nursery and recall a rhyme we all once knew:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.Humpty has been particularly accident-prone recently. He has fallen off the wall of climate stability. He has fallen off the wall of religious institutions. He has even fallen off Wall Street itself! And yes, it’s true that neither the king’s horses nor the king’s men—nor indeed the world’s financiers, politicians, lawyers, or clerics—have had much success in putting the pieces together again and restoring the system to its old state.
The truth is that once you have broken an egg, all you can do is make an omelet . . . unless the egg hasn’t just broken but has hatched!
This is our story, in our lives, in our world, and in this book. It is the story of how something new may be hatching out of our own eggshells. The secret is to trust that this may be so and then engage with the task of helping birth the new out of the shards of the old.
As you look around you at the world we live in, and inside yourself at your own world, notice where you feel that there are crisis points.
In those situations, where do you see the danger? Where might there be opportunity?
Do you think it is a curse to “live in interesting times,” or can it be a blessing?
Have you experienced a Humpty Dumpty event? How do you feel about it? Did it lead—or is it leading—to nothing more than a rather messy omelet? Or is it a chick trying to hatch?
Table of Contents
1 Dislodged 1
2 Crisis: Danger or Opportunity? 11
3 Mind the Gap 19
4 Bridges over Troubled Waters 25
5 When the Traveler Is Ready, the Bridge Appears 35
6 God Bless This Mess 43
7 Can Bad News Be Good News? 53
8 The Day the Rains Came 61
9 The Rock and the Sand 71
10 A Fly on the Face of the Mona Lisa 81
11 Strange Attraction 91
12 When Bad Seeds Yield Good Fruit 101
13 Places of Passage, Places of Fear 109
14 Yesterday Is Already Ours 119
15 Will You Save Your Life or Spend It? 127
16 Restoration? Renovation? Re-creation! 137
17 Adapt, Survive, Transcend 147
18 It’s a Bit Muddy . . . 159
19 Some Transitions in Scripture 177
20 As You Move On . . . 181