by B. Kim Barnes
Reprinted from LinkedIn, published on November 12, 2016
Twenty-five years ago, my house burned, along with 3000 others, in a huge firestorm that struck the hills of Oakland and Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was unexpected – though, in hindsight, it could have been anticipated. It was an event over which I had no control. It changed everything about my life and those of my neighbors. Being a writer and an educator, of course I felt driven to draw lessons from the way all of us responded to this event – to begin to understand how to deal productively with sudden, imposed change. I wrote an article with some ideas about how we were able to get through the difficult days and months that followed the firestorm and published it as part of a manual on change leadership.
Ten years later, after the awful events of 9/11, I revisited and revised the article in response to a client’s request for something to offer the people in her company who were so deeply shaken, as we all were, by the experience of watching and living through the terror attacks.
Today, many people in the U.S. and around the globe have been profoundly affected by the upending of expectations in what is usually a predictable series of events leading to the selection of a new leader. While it is a different type of event in most ways from a firestorm or a terror attack, the reactions to it are amazingly similar: shock, anger, grief, fear, confusion, depression. Even for people who voted for the winner, after the initial joyful reaction, there is a sense of concern about unanticipated consequences and potential conflict and division.
So today, I thought I would once again share some of the lessons I learned all those years ago and which have been helpful to me ever since. Here they are.
Let go of any illusions of control or “magical thinking.” I believe that consciously letting go shortened the “neutral zone” time for me. Friends who did not do this later reported that they stayed in a suspended state for many days and delayed taking practical actions to recreate their lives. Visualization of a positive future which you can help bring about is productive; imagining that you can control the forces of nature, of the economy, of human nature or global politics is not. Letting go is a conscious choice of “mental action.” I found it helpful to use a mental image of letting go, such as opening my hand. Until you are able to do this, you will remain fixed in the past. Time spent reviewing how you or others could have prevented the disaster or how you might still rescue the situation is not productive. That time is better spent in grieving and then getting on with life after the firestorm. The time for learning how to prevent repetition of the loss will come later in the process when you can make a realistic assessment of what you can control and what you can’t.
Take time to grieve, but not more than you need. Two days later, after the fire was out, we were allowed to walk in to see what was left. Although we really knew what we would find, it was a shock to see our neighborhood looking as if it had been bombed out, in a war zone. Our home was gone; in its place a strangely beautiful ruin. We cried and hugged. Then we got out the shovels we had brought and began to dig. There was more grieving to do, of course, but it happened from time to time as a natural part of the work of remembrance, healing, and rebuilding and never after that day was the central focus of our lives.
Celebrate the best of what was lost; bring it symbolically with you toward the future. The first thing I found intact was a plate my grandmother had painted in the 1920s. The glaze a little rearranged but otherwise perfect, it seemed a loving message from the past. Later we found our favorite breakfast mugs, re-cast as multimedia pieces. That night the sunset was especially glorious, almost echoing the fire of two days earlier. The full moon shone at the same time through what had once been our bedroom window. We brought fruit and flowers (for life) and candles (for hope) and had a small, quiet ceremony in which we appreciated all that the house had meant to us, then let it go and made a promise to ourselves to keep that which was best in our hearts until we could build it again. Read more ›