The Alchemy of Adversity - What Does Grief Have to Do with It?

The Alchemy of Adversity – What Does Grief Have to Do with It?

The Alchemy of Adversity. What does that mean?

Well first, alchemy.

Alchemy is the medieval precursor of modern-day chemistry, based on a very early and rudimentary understanding about chemical processes and transformation of matter. It was concerned particularly with attempts to change other metals into gold. The idea was that if they could melt off everything that didn’t belong, all that would be left would be the gold.

Since the first time I read about it or heard about it, I thought it was a wonderful metaphor for personal transformation. Melting off anything that isn’t helpful, that isn’t helping you be your most genuine, fully actualized self

(In the Facebook group) I’ve been harping on what can happen FOR us inside the chrysalis of this pandemic that as been thrust on us, but I am literally gobsmacked by the possibilities for the alchemy of adversity and transformation.

Right now, we’re seeing adversity at a global level, not just pockets in unknown countries or neighborhoods. We’re having adversity and unwelcome change thrust upon us. It’s screaming for the alchemy of transformation.

It’s also a tipping point and we get to decide – to a large extent - which way we fall.

So let’s go back to the idea, the purpose of alchemy. To melt off anything that isn’t gold and leave just the gold. When times are easy, we become complacent. It’s just human nature. We feel like our way is smooth. We aren’t feeling any push back. So we keep doing what we’re doing.

Until something happens.

At a personal level, that could be a change in relationships or health or finances. Or any of those things happening to someone we love. Big personal changes are things like death, divorce, empty nest, cancer, menopause, losing a job, changing jobs, the financial changes that come with job changes, death, and divorce.  We are constantly in a state of change, of transition. We are constantly getting bumped out of our complacency.  That means we are constantly in a state of alchemy, of change.

With “little” things, we tend to respond with annoyance, and that may dig our rut deeper instead of effecting change.

But a big part of human alchemy that happens during change, any change, comes through grief, but grief is not just about bereavement.

When you’re a child you’re more in touch with this. Grief is natural and spontaneous for children. Think of the grief that happens to a child when her bike gets stolen. Or her favorite toy gets broken. Or she doesn’t get her way. Her heart is broken. She weeps and wails and fully owns that grief.

As we grow older, though, outside voices, the voices of others, start telling us things like, “Oh, grow up. Stop acting like a baby.” So we begin losing our natural ability to grieve, our natural release.

So instead of letting our grief take its natural healing changing course, we hold it in. Or try to. But that only makes it fester. So instead of the alchemy of healing, we get the opposite. We get the festering of self-harming.

It isn’t outlandish to feel like we are losing everything right now because of COVID-19. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that grief needs to be welcomed as part of our process since grief is about dealing with loss of any kind?

What is happening in the world right now is creating a massive grief response throughout all of humanity. We are in collective grief.  And we collectively as well as individually have a decision. Are we going to allow this grief to take its natural healing transformational course, or are we going to fight against it or pretend grief isn’t happening. Both of which cause festering. 

Fighting against something that is happening is a form of denial. Denial is a form of fear. And fear keep you stuck. Fear creates emotional, physical, and spiritual wounds that fester. They also hold you back your next stage of grieving.

Denial is the first stage of grief. It may pop out as “This can’t be happening. I can’t believe this is happening.” But keep in mind that denial serves a purpose.  Of course, everything serves a purpose for us if we can learn to allow that perspective.

Denial is creating a little bubble, a little buffer. Denial helps us survive. It gives us this moment of emptiness that we actually need.  In the throes of that moment, though, we feel like everything is meaningless and overwhelming. We need to push everything back a little. We can’t even process what is happening. Our mind is in shock. We feel numb.  We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on.

But inside that little bubble, as long as we don’t stay there, is the space and the grace to decide between I can’t go on OR I must find a way to go on.

It almost doesn’t matter which one you decide, because either one is probably going to lead to the next stage.

Anger. Or sometimes deep sadness. Or both. Or they may cycle. Grieving isn’t linear. If you can just allow it, instead of pushing it away or sinking into depression which is its own stage of grief. (We’ll get there in a moment.) You may ask, “Where is God in this?” Whatever your name for god may be.

Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, whether it’s the child who’s lost her bike or the women who’s lost her husband or the world that’s lost its footing. But we live in a society that fears anger. Good anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.  

Instead of pushing these feelings away, we can be like a child - the child we were before we lost this ability - and connect to those feelings of grief. Listen to them. Tell them you are grateful for the help they are bringing.

Did you know you can talk directly to your feelings? Sometimes, feelings act just like children. They want to know that you see them and hear them. That they matter. But you don’t let your children get their way all the time and the same goes for your feelings.  

Your children, when they’re not getting their way, usually head straight for bargaining. And that’s the next step of grief.

Before any loss, there are two normal natural states of being. One is complacency - I’ll always have this thing or this person. The other is gratitude - I’m so thankful I have this person or thing.

After loss, usually while still in our state of disbelief, we begin negotiating. If I promise to devote the rest of my life to feeding the hungry, can I wake up tomorrow and realize this was just a bad dream? It never happened?

The minefield with bargaining is that it also causes guilt. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and beat ourselves up over we could have done differently.

Bargaining also keeps us stuck in the past, ruminating over things that have already happened and often can't be changed. (Unless you're pre-worrying which we'll get to another day.)

Bringing ourselves back into the present, though, can lead to depression. Empty feelings reenter, only now you know that it wasn’t a dream and you can’t negotiate your way out. Grief enters on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. You may feel hopeless. It may feel like it will last forever. It’s important to understand, regardless of the cause of your grief, that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a loss. It’s a way to withdraw from life, from the fog of intense sadness, for however long it takes. It’s not something to snap out of any more than it’s a place to get stuck.

Think about it. To NOT experience or allow any kind of depression or grief after a loss, THAT would be the unnatural response. Depression is more of a way to allow this new reality to settle into your soul. To allow it to become part of your reality. Because whether you like it or not, whatever is causing your grief IS part of your reality now.

And that leads to the next stage - acceptance. Acceptance is sometimes confused with the notion of “Everything’s OK, It’s all right.” But that’s not true. If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t be grieving. Instead, this stage is about accepting the reality of whatever has happened. To cease fighting against it.  The wisdom to know the difference between something you can change and something you can’t.

The wisdom that comes with acceptance is a big part of becoming found in your life, whether that realization of acceptance comes from a major event like a death, or what’s going on in the world, or something that would be a blip or less for anyone else.

This is alchemy. The breaking down of what was in order to usher in whatever is becoming.

Right now, we are literally watching so many old structures breaking down in real time. This world situation is a collective experience. For some it will also be intensely personal, and yet we all sharing it in one way or another.

For each of us as individuals, our old patterns will be showing up. Patterns of fear or love or grace or anger. We can meet the challenges of our lives within the process of becoming new.

The Alchemy that happens inside adversity, like grief, is unavoidable. But humans are designed with the ability to use adversity the same way the butterfly does.

And that is the pure alchemy of adversity.


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