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The Power of Wakeup Calls

The purpose of wakeup calls is to awaken you to something you're ignoring.

Wakeup calls—the 2X4 approach to consciousness-raising—are simply calls that, from neglect, have become desperate to get your attention. They don’t generally start out that way. They start as polite requests, gentle taps on the shoulder, whispers in your ear, and they escalate to rude shoves and shouts only after you've repeatedly ignored them.

Our souls, I once heard someone say, will speak as softly as possible, but as loudly as they have to. At which point they become crises that often alter your life so dramatically that you have no choice but to change, and do your best just to cope. The sociologist Gordon Allport calls this the power of the fait accompli. The done deal. The career disaster that blows a hole in your hull below waterline. The accident or illness that changes everything. The partner who leaves you for someone else. The case of burnout that lands you in the hospital. The addiction that lands you in the courtroom or the newspaper.

Some kinds of change can only be set in motion by a strong-arm tactic, otherwise the forces of habit and fear and laziness are just too stubborn. Perhaps wakeup calls should even be considered alternative rites-of-passage for people who no longer have them, the means by which new powers and patterns can break into consciousness, and new stages of life be attained.

In any case, there’s no sense blaming the messenger. If responsibility is the ability to respond, when you don't respond to your calls, you put them in the position of having to come after you, the same way my ex-wife came after me when I neglected my share of the housework. It appeared that she was the problem, the nagger and tormenter, when really I was the problem.

I suspect that those who experience wakeup calls usually discover, in hindsight of course, that they had received plenty of warning before the poop hit the propeller, but chose to disregard it. A lot of divorces and diseases and dismissals from jobs probably don’t come as a complete surprise to those who suffer them. Fights and infidelities, or a morose silence, fall over a relationship well before the word divorce ever splits the air. Children show us in countless ways that they need our attention well before they get mixed up with the law. You begin taking little chances at a job when you just don’t care anymore—extra-long lunches, leaving work early, sick days you come back from with a tan—and that are indications you’re probably not long for the job.

Granted, some wakeup calls are not a function of neglecting calls—natural disasters, mass job layoffs, parents suddenly coming to live with you, the suicide of a friend, a sudden empty nest, the death of a child—but whatever the case, you’re drop-kicked into consciousness, even if only temporarily, and you either use the experience or you don’t. Either you understand that the point of the experience is to reorient you and recognize the call in the calamity, or you attempt to drive yourself deeper into the status quo, the old equilibrium, and thereby miss the point entirely.

Wakeup calls, however, change the bottom line. What seemed important before now doesn’t. You have a new set of priorities. When you get sick, work takes a back seat. When your kid gets in an accident, your own concerns pale. When someone you love dies, whatever you failed to tell them that you wished you had said often becomes a top priority in your other relationships. When you’re dying, all your obsessions with security and status and time spent doing anything other than what you really want to do, or must do, often seem ludicrous.

These realizations often come in shattering moments, when your sustaining habits are pulled violently from you, when the demand for a new way comes hard up against the armies of the old, and when you figure out that no amount of business-as-usual will stop the inevitable from happening. Not that you can’t rebuild, but first there’s a shattering, and the need to acknowledge that you’re in shock.

Whether a wakeup call becomes a boon or a bane depends on what you’re willing to learn from it, and whether you’re willing to be moved by the experience. The outcome doesn’t depend on how strong you are, but on how you’re strong. Not just any kind of strength will suffice in the face of a wakeup call. Physical strength may be virtually useless, a strong will may only make things worse, and the ability to withstand pain may work against you. You may instead need to call on the strength to surrender.

In fact, one of the unsung benefits of wakeup calls is that they may even force you to hit bottom, which may be the best thing to hit you, because there's only up from there. And in retrospect you might even realize that they were part of the path, not opposed to it. Part of what helped plunge you into a predicament that served to awaken you.

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