Thinking about transformation

watershedI want to explore the nature of transformation.

I teach a class at Georgetown University for aspiring coaches, and one of the activities involves asking students to work in small groups and to compare their experiences with each other regarding watersheds.

Watersheds are defined loosely.  A watershed can focus on a specific, discrete experience such as the birth of a child, or something more extended, such as surviving a dire medical diagnosis.  What makes a watershed a watershed is that “on the other side” of a watershed, you feel transformed; there’s a before and after, you don’t feel quite the same about yourself or your life.

The activity has two parts.  One, share your experiences with each other.  Listen deeply to each other’s story.  Two, after each person has shared their story, engage in a collective conversation and explore the nature of personal transformation and identify any common themes.

The experience of sharing creates an intense emotional bond, as you might imagine, and the risk is that the intense feelings overshadow cognitive aspect of the experience.  Dissecting the experience does not diminish the watershed, yet it can be a struggle to identify and articulate what’s going on in a transformation.

One theme that consistently appears in the post-activity conversations focuses on how awareness shifts.  It’s a qualitative change, often elusive, but the world just no longer looks the same.  The shift in awareness is related to choice.  Either the person about to undergo a transformation made a difficult choice, which informed the transformation, or discovered, that in the post-transformation universe, they choose differently than they did in the past.   What and how one chooses seems to be an essential aspect of transformation.

Another point that is often raised references the “no going back” aspect of transformation.  You can’t “unknow” or “undo” what you discovered.  So while many students acknowledge having access to new possibilities, they also will often concede a sense of sadness about an illusion no longer sustainable, or a relationship that will never be the same.

Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  And I think he has it right.  It is unlikely we will know in advance of the myriad decisions we make, large and small, which ones will be transformative.   And yet the idea that we might be able to choose to be transformed continues to intrigue me, because that would be the highest form of self-authorship.

As my thinking has evolved, I have gravitated toward a way of thinking about development, and the possibility of transformation, as largely involving being able to think in terms of stories, to see our stories as stories rather than the truth.  Our stories are windows into our meaning-making apparatus.  Who are we as the protagonists in the stories of our lives?  What roles do we assign others?  What are the character arcs and narrative arcs in our stories?  And most importantly, am I able to see my own role as author and narrator in the stories I tell myself and others?  The real power of transformation involves choosing my story, choosing who I am in my story, and choosing the arc or trajectory of the story, as something that is not exclusively an artifact of circumstance.  Choice is the seed from which self-authorship, and ultimately transformation, grows.