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The Breakdown Comes Before the Breakthrough

October 15, 2012

Here is an excerpt from my e-book, “At Work as it is in Heaven.”  

I don’t know if there is a name for this in-between time.

The summer is clearly over, but autumn hasn’t quite taken hold yet. Here in Eastern Pennsylvania, the leaves have just started to turn withering shades of reds and yellows. The tilt of the earth has tipped over a couple notches in the last couple of weeks, so that the sunlight hits you at a noticeably different slant.

I can tell, things are starting to die. I can feel it in my soul.

As I stepped into the garage this morning on my way to work, some kind of ominous despair rose up and gripped me by the throat, just as I was getting into the car. I froze for a moment and stared the thing down. Then I swallowed it hard, and got on with my day.  

Where did that come from?

Maybe this unease has to do with my daughter, who has gone off to her first year of college. I am worried about her. Or maybe it’s an aftershock from the trauma of turning fifty a few months ago. The loss of my youth, and all that. There are also some big changes going on at work. We are in the midst of an enormous organizational transformation, which is just a fancy way to say that we’re messing around with how we do things. What used to work isn’t working so well anymore, so we’re making changes. It’s complicated. And a little chaotic.

That morose shadow in the garage may have been a creeping acknowledgement of what’s dying.  One thing is ending, and the other hasn’t yet begun.

I’m in-between. 

Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, developed a model long ago to explain this bewildering transition period. It’s called the S-curve.  He originally used it to describe the rise and fall of biological life forms, famously noting what should be obvious: growth is  not linear – it’s cyclical.

Whether it is a one-celled organism, or a an entire civilization, all life is marked by the same recurring patterns of growth, maturity, decline, and then this in-between potential – for either death, or renewal and reinvention.

This concept is equally relevant to an individual’s spiritual development, or a business, or a marriage. After a period of growth, we plateau, and eventually start to disintegrate.

The only way to keep growing is to let go of the old and wander around for a while until we latch on to what’s next, which involves the creation of new strategies, structures, or systems. And then start all over again. But that in-between time – when one curve is ending and a new one is starting up – can be rough, filled with resistance, chaos, uncertainty, darkness. Death.

Yeah, that’s probably what I was feeling when I got in the car this morning.

I’ve been reading Parker Palmer, who says we should pretty much embrace these periods of aimless obscurity. “By allowing something to die when it’s time is due,” he says, “we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

We’d like to think it’s all up, up, up, but that’s not the natural order of things. Life is a bumpy, spirally ride. Your company may be hitting a wall, or perhaps you’re going through a career transition, or you might be seeing little doubt bubbles bursting all around your faith. It’s the same pattern: the chaos and confusion are just predecessors to your next breakthrough. The only way out is through.

I’ve probably known this instinctively all along. That message, after all, is built right into the fabric of our revolving earth, the changing seasons, the story of our faith. Darkness may be standing me down, but new life is on the way.

I just know that something good is going to happen.

You can download the e-book here for Kindle or here for Nook. If you don’t have one of those newfangled e-readers,  click on this link to download the Kindle app right to your PC and read from your home office or laptop. Sweet!

15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2012 7:14 am

    Thanks for this reminder. I wrote about transition myself this week but had forgotten this chapter in your book. I think the reminder that it is a cycle is helpful.

  2. October 15, 2012 8:27 am

    You have no idea how timely this is, Mr. Shrinking Camel. No idea. Thank you.

  3. Mary Godefroid permalink
    October 15, 2012 8:28 am

    THANKS! I needed that. Just ordered your book for my kindle.

  4. October 15, 2012 11:09 am

    I am glad that there are cycles within our cycle.

  5. pastordt permalink
    October 15, 2012 5:44 pm

    This is wonderful, Jim – thanks so much. Because I am now retired, I thought your book might not apply to me and my life right now. But if this is a sample, I’ve assumed wrongly. Time to re-think…

  6. October 15, 2012 7:33 pm

    Jim, I enjoyed your entire book which I read when it first came out! I remember reading this ( I think and I don’t mean to insult you) but like scripture, sometimes the same passage that we read many times may not strike us the first or even tenth time. However, timing is so critical and the meaning in this post for me was nothing short of perfect. Thank you and I hope you and your wonderful family are well.

  7. October 16, 2012 9:15 am

    Well said and very much needed. I have heard of this in organizational life, but hadn’t ever thought about its impact on the personal journey. Thanks!

  8. October 16, 2012 3:40 pm

    I had never thought of the cycles of life quite like this before, but it certainly makes sense. After all, look at the lives of almost any of the biblical heroes. Their lives are characterized by a series of ups and downs.

  9. Bret Cox permalink
    October 16, 2012 8:03 pm

    Your writing inspires me and this post was timely as I am transitioning from the mission field in Thailand back to the corporate world where I used to work. I appreciate your insight! Keep posting as God is using you in a powerful way in my life if no one else.

  10. October 18, 2012 1:15 pm

    This is one of my favorite excerpts from the book (I think I cited it in my review!). This has been one of those years full of darkness with some cracks of light — and the light is getting brighter. Growth is not linear. Not should it be. As you say, new life is on the way.

  11. October 18, 2012 2:16 pm

    I often think about time as moments –once they pass, they are gone, only to live in memory. But there is something about ‘what is old, is new.’ Things like fashion, simplicity, and love never really go out of style and find ways to circle round to those that embrace them.

  12. October 20, 2012 11:16 am

    I’m not quite where you are, but I can see that day on the horizon. That first curve has ceased to go up, although it’s not yet falling down. Good word from Parker Palmer when I am solidly on the downward, looking for what’s next.

  13. November 4, 2012 7:36 pm

    I’m feeling a bit of that ominous dispair gripping my throat lately, Jim. Appreciate this post and perspective.

  14. November 20, 2012 6:00 pm

    Wow! You just have me a huge handful of … joy because… it is so easy to forget that something to grow needs to … die first, especially when we are in the moment of “dying” when one is so sad that the promise of “being born again” is not taken seriously at all! ;o). Thank you!!!!

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