This week I was talking to a client who said that she was feeling overwhelmed and out of control. I told her that I could relate, and shared a story from my life from exactly 8 years ago (and I mean to the day: 20 April). It’s a powerful story, so I’ll share it with you, too.
In April 2004, I was a newly made department chair (it was made official on April Fool’s Day!) although I had been acting chair since January. It had been a really difficult few months: 16-hr work days, confusion, anguish, the whole 9 yards. I was a smart cookie, how come I couldn’t figure it all out?
I had spent months cleaning up the messes of my predecessor, including 2 tenure decisions that I had not been a part of, but whose fallout was my job. I was feeling torn apart because the very loyal colleague who had done a lot for the dept. was getting canned, and the not-a-team-player, constant-thorn-in-my-side colleague was being made a permanent fixture. Ugh.
And then my grandmother died.
Of all four grandparents, she was the one I was closest to, both literally and figuratively. Growing up, we had lived far apart, but since taking that university job, I was only a few hours’ drive away most of the time. I had just seen her the week before at Easter, where my now-husband and I had announced we were getting married. She was a painter, a spitfire, and a few weeks shy of 102 years old.
I was devastated, but didn’t really have time to process with all the work-related chaos I was swimming in. Her funeral was a happening only about 100 miles from where I lived (right next door, in Kansas distance), so because I was a Girl Scout, I went to work that day, and even attended the afternoon chairs’ meeting with the dean. It ran long, which meant I had to rush (read: exceed posted speed limits) to get to the cemetery in time. And then it started to rain. Hard.
Despite the rain, everything was fine until 5 miles from the exit to the cemetery. I was going 10 miles under the speed limit because the road was so wet. Then I hit a deep puddle and started hydroplaning. My fiancé was with me, and as we careened out of control, then hit the concrete median and started spinning, all my other worries fell away and it became an undisputed question of survival. I had a clear mental image of the crumpled car lying 20 feet below at the bottom of the drop-off to our right.
All my desperate efforts to get the car under control were in vain: the tires were not connecting with the road! I wondered fearfully if we would make it out alive, and if not, who would (know to) take care of my beloved doggie, who would become department chair in my stead (!), what would become of my house and belongings, and a thousand other things. Those few seconds seemed to last hours.
Finally, as we spun for the 10th time or more, I threw up my hands—literally in a gesture of surrender—and decided that maybe it was a good day to die. That’s right: I let go of the steering wheel as we were spinning across 3 lanes of an interstate highway at speeds now in excess of 80 miles an hour. I wasn’t sure I knew what would happen when I died, but maybe I’d meet my grandmother and we could hang out. All in all, it didn’t seem like such a bad option!
In that moment of pure surrender—when, after months and months of trying to control that which was out of my hands, I told the Universe: “You decide”—the unthinkable happened: the spinning stopped. The slimmest corner of the bumper had connected with the guardrail, and I braked as hard as I could. I could hardly believe the reprieve that we had! I didn’t know if we would make it, but there was a glimmer of hope.
Some 60 feet later we came to a stop at the very end of that metal barrier (there was still a pretty sheer drop, nicely underscoring again how close we had come to leaving this world), and stepped out of the car, shaken, crying, but in one piece.
That was the beginning of the end of my life as a control freak. And also the beginning of the end of my life as an academic, I think. It was the first in a string of hard lessons about giving up and going with the flow of the Divine Universe in order to see my life unfold in the best possible way. Today I laugh at the idea that I was ever in control, or that I knew better than the Universe (!!!) but I didn’t “get” it at the time.
So, dear reader, the next time you are feeling out of control, remember to let go of the steering wheel. It could save your life.