Being in the Thick of Things: on Life-Defining Phases and Transformation

It’s quite a time. Both in my life and in the world. It can be hard to keep track of it all. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to navigate through the thick of life – when so much is happening – and coming through transformed for the better.

First, I’ll note that I missed posting last week. My goal is a weekly post, so this is frustrating.

That said, I’m okay with missing the post. Being in the thick of life – with a marriage, a three-year-old kid (so fun, and so many emotions!), two parents with health issues, a new business, community service commitments, and work to develop myself as a writer and scholar – means I’ve got a lot going on. Last week, a few of these things came together in a way that made me prioritize what was immediately in front of me. Some things had to give, and a blog post felt like it could be one of those things.

Alongside the many things coming together in this phase of my life, I also work at the intersection of democracy, climate change, and transformation. And if you work on anything related, you may be feeling similar things.

The world is in the thick of things, too.

So much happening on climate, democracy, and transformation

Just a year ago this week in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its special report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C. The next month the United States released the Fourth National Climate Assessment. In May, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released its Global Assessment Report. And then in September 2019, the IPCC put out another report, this one about the world’s oceans and ice.

All of these reports describe the need for humans to make large-scale, fast-paced, deliberate transformational change. People need to do so in order to avoid a future in which climate change overwhelms the human and natural systems that keep us safe and secure.

The exciting thing is, positive signs connecting climate change and transformation are emerging. From September 20-27, the world saw the largest mass demonstrations demanding action climate action, with over 7 million people joining a climate strike. As an American, I see climate change shaping politics in ways I’ve never seen, with voters viewing the climate crisis a major concern and policy proposals that are actually up to the task at hand (looking at you Green New Deal and Jay Inslee’s climate plans).

However, just as the climate crisis and response are rising, the ways we deal with big collective issues – namely politics and governance – well, let’s just say there’s a lot of going on there as well. Mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, the years-long Brexit saga, authoritarian political leadership in Brazil. In my own country, the United States, we are experiencing the breakdown of all kinds of political norms, an impeachment inquiry, human rights violations at our borders, and what feels to be a forever-long presidential campaign.

Like I said, the world is in the thick of things.

So, given that I’m personally in the thick of life, and that the world feels the same way, I have some thoughts to keep things in perspective and enable productive ways to navigate through these life-defining times on the path toward positive transformation.

Being in the thick of things feels (and is) life-defining

In 2012, I was deciding whether or not to run for reelection to the Minnesota House of Representatives, and I met with a friend and mentor to help me sort through it. I described what I wanted in the next few years – to find my life partner, start a family, find our home, finish my PhD, gain clarity about and make progress on my life’s work. My mentor remarked he loved talking with people in this phase of life because it is such a time of big choices and change. In other words, being in the thick of life is life-defining.

He was right. Since 2012, I’ve done all of the things I described and more. I’ve woven my life together with wonderful people (including the most miraculous little one) and fulfilling work. These are threads I can’t unweave, and I don’t want to. They are what make my life worth living.

At the tail-end of this life-defining phase, while still in the thick of things, I can say that the choices and work have been invigorating and satisfying. At times, I’ve also found myself scared, overwhelmed, and downright heartbroken.

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s great, even. Because the thing about life-defining phases is that they bring together all of the things that make us human. And we are transformed through them.

If you navigate a life-defining phase well ,the result is a transformation to something bigger, more whole, and more full of wisdom and depth. In other words, the transformation is to something more richly human.

Having a child has transformed me, and we’ll see how the ripples of her life help transform the world.

Navigating the earth’s life-defining time with purpose and openness

Given all the climate and democracy challenges here on earth, we are all navigating through the thick of life in a life-defining phase. Only in this case, it’s life-defining for the whole planet. The question isn’t whether transformation is coming, it’s whether we will be capable of transforming to a future that is more fully human and humane.

I’m not sure what the answer to that question will be.

What I do know is I’ve found the ability to navigate the last few years of my life has required be to hold the tension of a strong focus on purpose with a vulnerable openness to the world. Doing so keeps me moving forward and rooted, and it helps me figure out where I’m most needed.

My main purpose is my desire to make a family and to knit myself into the work of building a better climate future.

And pairing that with vulnerable openness? Well, that shows up in all kinds of things. Saying marital vows, and then living them. Crying over my suckling infant daughter on election night 2016. Reading The Lorax to her not quite two years later and tearing up as she pointed to a page and said, “Lorax crying.” Also tearing up as I read scientific reports about climate change, allowing myself to understand both intellectually and emotionally.

The moments this pairing of purpose and vulnerable openness matters most are those when choices define both who you are and the path forward. For me, this has looked like rushing to the hospital to see my mom before her emergency hip replacement surgery a week before my dissertation defense and showing up to provide care in the days after. It looked like navigating a messy end to a big, risky career move while remaining true to myself. And it looked like starting my own business as a way to contribute to progress on climate solutions and democratic revitalization, even when a business had never been my plan.

Stepping back out to this time on the planet, it’s a time that calls for resolutely working towards the purposes of addressing simultaneous climate and democracy crises. That’s clear. What’s also clear is that doing so is hard – intellectually, physically, emotionally. These challenges are big in ways that are hard to grasp, yet they are also intensely personal because they are already killing people and destroying communities.

It can be tempting to block out what is happening, to become cynical, or, worst, to give up. This is why the vulnerable openness matters. It’s what keeps us all in this work, together, figuring out our path forward through transformation to a better future.

Some lessons for working on democracy, climate, and transformation

In the phase of life I’m in, I’ve learned a few lessons that I think are helpful for this life-defining time of planetary-scale transformation.

You can step back, and others will step in

Remember that being human is hard, it’s even harder given all the transformational change happening now. In these times, it’s not possible to do everything, to be everything, you want to be. And that’s okay because one of the beautiful things about being human is that we humans live in communities.

These last couple weeks have seen a rotating group of family members and friends stepping into help my family make things work. While it’s been a stressful time, it’s also been beautiful. I am so grateful to see the many people who love me and my family and are willing to step up and help.

The same thing holds true at larger scales. The world is full of people who love their kids, their communities, and our shared planet. Each of us can rely on others to step forward to act on this love, even as each of us sometimes needs to step back.

You are essential, we all are

While it’s okay to step back, each of us is also essential. Over the last few days, I’ve cancelled two meetings not because of direct conflicts, but because I need to spend time with my daughter. While I trust others to care for her, I also know I am an essential part of her life. And because spending time with my daughter is essential, I choose to make it a priority.

The same thing applies when thinking about collective work on democracy and climate change. Shaping a desirable future as we go through this time of transformation will take countless good, thoughtful people stepping up to the calling of a public life focused on climate change. I call these people as climate citizens, and the work of these climate citizens is essential.

It’s important to give and receive tenderness

In the midst of this planetary-scale thick of life – when we are going through life-defining transformations – things feel big and consequential. And they are in a lot of ways. Yet amidst all of this bigness, people still have the capacity to be people, to go quiet and reflect. I’ve found that during this time, one of the most important things is to seek out and offer tenderness, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. This tenderness is what keeps us human, and it helps others to keep their humanity as well.

And that humanity, holding tight to it and insisting on it, I think that’s the most important thing when we’re in the thick of big things and when what we’re going through will transform all of us. It’s this humanity that will keep us, and our planet, from splintering apart.

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