September 1, 2009
 Turning the Page
Finding the Courage
For Major Life Change
    
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Life is far from an exact science. Each of us, as we navigate much unmapped terrain en route to realizing our potential, makes some good choices and some bad ones. And we make some that are right for us at one time but not another.

We invariably come to points where we realize that a situation or a goal we’ve chosen to pursue just isn’t working for us. Sometimes we discover that a dream we’ve devoted ourselves to earnestly doesn’t fit us nearly as well as we had hoped. Yet a big part of us resists letting go of it, because we’ve staked our identity on it so strongly.

Jason is a gifted high school history teacher, loved by students for his ability to make an often dry subject interesting. Yet for years he had pursued a legal career. Although Jason was a talented attorney, he wasn’t out of law school long before he realized that his passion for law was far less than that of his associates.

By his early thirties he had determined that his strongest gifts and interests lay in teaching, not in fighting legal battles. The fact that he had long been fascinated with studying history led him to conclude he should teach that subject. And working with his church’s youth ministry convinced him he would enjoy teaching high school students.

Deciding that he ought to become a teacher was one thing. Mustering the courage to leave the legal profession was quite another, and it took him three years to do it. Changing careers not only meant disappointing his parents--who had urged him to become an attorney and had paid for all his higher education--but admitting to others and himself that he had spent years chasing a dream that wasn’t right for him. It also meant financial sacrifice--trading a lavish salary for a modest one, and finding a way to fund further education. Jason worried, too, if he had the potential to be a good teacher, and whether he could find a position with a high school.

Today his only regret is that he took so long to make this change. It has opened up a much more fulfilling career for him, and one that has proven to match his potential remarkably well.

Why Change Is Difficult

Like Jason, most of us take a circuitous route in finding our career niche; few of us get it right the first time. The changes in direction we make personally may be less dramatic than his--like switching college majors, or taking a new job within the same profession. Yet many of us make one or more major career changes during our lifetime. Our self-understanding is always developing. Add to this the extreme latitude of choice we face in America today, and we can easily be into our thirties, forties or beyond, before we find the career that fits us best. Jason’s experience is not at all unusual.

Change is the stuff of our lives in many other areas besides career and education. Few of us live out our life in the same town in which we grew up, let alone the same home. Most of us make at least several moves--some of us more than we can count--to new homes or regions. We may change our church affiliation from time to time, and our membership in other organizations and clubs. We rethink our commitments in endless other areas--to leisure activities, to leadership roles, to people, to goals for personal growth, to our style of living.

Our most difficult turning points often involve relationships. Not many of us make the journey to marriage without going through at least several dating relationships, and a variety of hoped-for ones, where our expectations rise and fall. Most of us endure some painful experiences in romance, and have to make a number of new beginnings.

What all major life changes we make have in common is that they always require us to give up something in order to gain something. No matter how strongly we desire to make a certain change, it means we have to sacrifice certain benefits we’ve come to depend on and enjoy, and often a dream we’ve embraced as well. Letting go of the past is usually the most difficult part of changing directions. Like Jason, we can get stuck here, and wait far longer than we should to move ahead.

There are several reasons we may fail to let go of situations or goals that aren’t right for us, even when we have convincing evidence that we should. Being aware of these tendencies which can hold us back can help us avoid falling prey to them, and to act more decisively when it’s time to turn the page.

Loss aversion. Some people are highly unsettled by any experience of personal loss or failure. They abhor loss so greatly that they prefer to live in denial about unhealthy situations in their life, and will remain in them way beyond a reasonable point. To break away, they fear, would be admitting too blatantly to others and themselves that they have failed. This same mentality makes them subject to wishful thinking that these situations will improve.

This outlook is termed “loss aversion” in the financial world. Investment psychologist Dian Vujovich explains, “To understand loss aversion, consider this scenario: A friend owns shares of a stock or a fund that has fallen precipitously over a period of time. Rather than reevaluating whether the investment is still a smart one, your friend decides to buy more shares. As the price continues to slide, your friend decides to hold on to the shares even though all the signs say to sell. You ask yourself, Why won’t he just get rid of that loser?”*

Part of what fuels loss aversion, Vujovich notes, is that we tend to value our losses more greatly than our gains. The grief we experience over a personal loss is typically greater than our joy over a success of equal measure. The result is that an investor with loss aversion tends not only to hold onto losing shares too long, but to sell winning shares too quickly.

We can be subject to loss aversion in any area of life. We may find it easier to stick with an unhealthy relationship than to break it off, or less threatening to stay in a profession that doesn’t match our potential than to start over in a new career. We dislike giving the impression that we’ve failed to anyone, including ourselves.

To move ourselves beyond loss aversion, it helps to understand that a number of losses are usually necessary to merit a success in any pursuit. Successful investors understand this principle well. Some investment strategies follow the principle that far more securities in a portfolio will post losses than gains; one may still come out ahead by keeping these losses as small as possible and the gains as substantial as possible.*

In the same way, our aim in life shouldn’t be to insulate ourselves against all possibility of failure, but to keep the losses we do experience as small as possible. The real loss is when we hold on to a bad situation too long. “Cutting our losses” is a helpful concept in business, for it implies we are taking a positive step by putting a stop to an unprofitable venture. It is a good way to regard dropping any losing situation in our life. Thinking in terms of cutting our losses reminds us that we’re gaining, not losing, by letting go.

In the same way, Jesus taught his disciples an extremely redemptive concept when he urged them to depart from towns where they weren’t warmly received, shaking the dust off their feet as they left (Mt 10:14; Mk 6:11; Lk 9:5, 10:11; see Acts 13:51). He not only indicated that it was normal and acceptable for them to experience some failures, even when they were following fully in his will, but he gave them a positive, assertive step to break the emotional inertia of losing situations.

Most important, he implied that they would enjoy some rewarding successes if they pressed on (Lk 10:2-9). The key was to keep their losses as minimal as possible, and their gains as significant as possible.

Jesus’ teaching on shaking off the dust is good to keep in mind whenever we need to gain the courage to cut our losses in any area. Reflecting on it can help us find the heart to move ahead.

Being true to ourselves. In some cases we’ve identified so strongly with a certain dream for so long that it has become part of the fabric of our personality. Even if we find that a new direction suits us better, the thought of letting go of our old dream feels like an act of treason against ourselves.

No matter how attracted we may be to a new dream, we may still feel like we’re forsaking an old friend by relinquishing our original one. We should recognize that it’s normal and human to feel this way. We are actually going through a grieving experience in this case. It may help us to take some time to mourn what we’re leaving behind, and allow ourselves to face these feelings fully. There is no shame in doing so; it’s part of the adjustment process often involved even in change that we greatly welcome.

We may also need to redefine what it means to be true to ourselves. We should regard it as staying faithful to an evolving understanding God’s will and our own potential, rather than a static one. As we make the changes that this growing understanding requires, we’ll probably feel less than authentic at times with new roles and identities we assume--simply because we aren’t used to them yet. This doesn’t mean we’re selling ourselves short by moving forward. Change of any sort can feel unnatural at first. The key is to allow ourselves reasonable time to adjust, and in time we’ll likely grow comfortable with our new situations.

God guides us not by revealing elaborate blueprints of his future intentions for our life, but by inching us forward step by step. We cannot be more true to ourselves than by committing ourselves fully to this process, and to all of the emotional adjustments involved.

The fear of hurting others. Another concern we may have is that others will be hurt if we take a new step with our life. This fear can have some basis. Friends and family members who’ve grown accustomed to how we are now may feel threatened by our changing. If they’ve supported us and rooted for us as we’ve pursued a certain dream, their pride may be hurt if we abandon it for a new one. A more serious problem is that they may lose important benefits that they derive from their present relationship with us.

We can never know for certain, however, how someone will respond to a step we want to take until we carry it out. Nor can we foresee fully how it will affect them. Sometimes we’re surprised.

During college I dated a nursing student for a year and a half. We enjoyed a strong, supportive relationship, and talked seriously about getting married. Gradually, though, I began to realize that we weren’t a good match for marriage, since our vocational goals didn’t mesh well. My interest in continuing the relationship began to wane.

Yet for over a month I hesitated to tell her, fearing that the news would be crushing to her. Finally, I brought myself to do it, nearly certain she would break down.

She did break down. Not in tears but in laughter. She went on to tell me that her feelings about the relationship had been changing in exactly the same way, yet she had been afraid of hurting me by admitting it. We parted amiably, and today both of us, happily married to others, remain good friends.

My experience brings out one of the most important principles of faith that we can keep in mind when weighing a major change: If God is influencing us to take a new direction with our life, he is influencing others about it as well. He is changing their thinking--preparing the way for us to move forward, that we may benefit, not devastate, those in our path. While we have no guarantee that others will applaud what we’re doing, we’re likely to enjoy some encouraging surprises. And if God is leading us to make the change we’re considering, we may trust that what is best for us will be best for others as well.

This isn’t to minimize the pain often involved in ending a relationship. My experience in college was unusual, unquestionably; breaking off a relationship can be the most difficult step we ever have to take. Yet we cannot second-guess how someone else will respond when we share our feelings honestly with them. Nor can we predict how God will strengthen us to handle the challenge of communicating on this delicate level.

Others have the potential to be hurt by any other major change we make. The desire not to purposely hurt others, of course, is commendable, and a vital part of caring for them with the love of Christ. Yet we can become too concerned about unintentional hurt someone may experience when we follow through with what God wants us to do.

We should remind ourselves that God will be changing people’s hearts as we move forward. Some whom we fear disappointing may respond quite differently than we imagine. Chances are good that, in the long run, they’ll be grateful we’ve followed our star. In any case, we’re not responsible for their feelings. We may trust that by faithfully carrying out what God wants us to do, we will best enhance his providing for the needs of others--including those whom we’re concerned about hurting.

The fear of failure. While there are many fears that can discourage us from a new venture, the fear of failure is often our greatest deterrent. Some fear of failing is healthy, for it prods us to plan carefully. Yet an inordinate fear of failure will prevent us from pursuing goals that are appropriate for us, including many that God will enable us to achieve.

Part of the solution is to revise our thinking about failure itself. It’s not the ultimate disaster to fail. With hindsight, we so often realize that certain setbacks actually helped pave the road to a cherished success. The important thing is to be willing to cut our losses if we do fail, and to be ready to do so. Simply knowing that we can cut our losses if we need to, helps to blunt our fear of failure and to give us the courage to risk.

It is just as important to remind ourselves that we may not fail. If Christ is leading us to take a certain step, we may trust that he’ll work in countless ways to bring about his best. Whatever the outcome, we’ll be better off going ahead. And we have strong reason to stay optimistic that we will reach the goal we’ve set out to accomplish.

Scripture encourages us also to expect considerable comfort from God in the face of fear. It reminds us often that, as we seek his help, he calms our fears and inspires us with courage. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7 NIV).

Yet it also warns us not to let fear rule our lives or keep us from realizing our potential for Christ. The tragic mistake of the servant in Jesus’ parable who hid his talent, was that he gave in too greatly to the fear of calamity. “I was afraid,” he confessed to his master (Mt 25:25).

Especially interesting is how often Scripture exhorts us simply not to be afraid. “Do not be anxious about anything.” The implication is that as we take decisive action to move ahead in spite of fear, we’ll not only experience God’s blessings in many remarkable ways, but relief from our anxieties as well. We overcome fear most substantially not by reflecting but by acting.

If God is leading you to take a new direction with your life, ask him to give you the courage to embrace life and move forward. Don’t ignore your fears--in fact, face them carefully. But determine not to let them control you. Resolve to step out in faith and to operate in the realm of faith. By doing so, you’ll find the strength to leave the past behind, and to open yourself fully to God’s best for your future.
     
 

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