transformation, chaos, and the straw that breaks the camel’s back

last month, i started a little series on change and transformation, inspired by a post by my blogging friend nancy that asked, how does change occur? that time i talked about the precursors of change – the “rumblings”, so to say, that precede an earthquake.

aaah, but is it an earthquake? is transformation really about the “disorienting dilemma” that transformative learning guru jack mezirow talks about? is it a “burning bush” experience?

for sure, that is the case for some people. in my research on transformative learning, i talked to people who had been transformed through tragic events like accidents and cancer. one person’s life changed completely after surviving a few days locked in a caved-in mine.

it was interesting, though, how often transformative moments in people’s lives were rather small. this is one of the main reasons why i became interested in the connection between transformative learning, psychotherapy and chaos theory. in chaos theory, too, small, even minute changes at crucial moments can make a huge difference. it’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

in my research, i asked interviewees to describe the moment of change, the actual turning point in their transformative experiences.

one person had grown up thinking that people with blue-collar backgrounds like hers could not become successful professionals, and that along with being professional came being “brilliant.” she tells us:

i didn’t know i could set goals. even with one of my daughters who had to work very hard at her schooling – when she said she wanted to become a teacher, i was wondering, can she really do that? i still thought she had to be brilliant, even suggested she’d become a teacher’s assistant instead – so i still put her in a category. … i knew that i was complying with these structures and in a way i wanted my daughter to comply, too … [but then] my daughter graduated and i thought what am i doing? that’s what broke the mold.

after that experience, this person started to set professional goals for herself that were completely different from before.

here’s another example of someone who, rather by accident, took a women’s studies course. this is what happened when she read a particular article.

i had thought that i had “let go” of this notion that i needed to be a dutiful, obedient, subordinate wife. what i realized was that i had let go of that on the surface but at a deep level, i felt like i was doing something wrong. it took this article to raise my consciousness about that.

after reading that article, she completely revised her ideas about being a wife and mother and realized that she’d be quite happy not having children. again, this dramatically changed her career path.

this little story is interesting because it shows the power of being open to revisiting and examining earlier insights – maybe we could call it the “i-thought-i-had-dealt-with-that syndrome.” it reminds of the ever continuing cycle of action and reflection that people as early as dewey (1933, p. 102-118) talk about.

2 thoughts on “transformation, chaos, and the straw that breaks the camel’s back

  1. wayne

    It happens both ways and both at the same time. Does it come down to awareness? If I hadn’t been aware of a woman walking by me 20 years ago, would I be living with her now. We may at any moment have the chance to live more fully. Lately I have been so worried at being behind, that I forgot I was in the present.

  2. isabella mori

    well, in my experience, it pretty much always comes down to awareness, decision and action, and since all three of these are complex events, i’m always amazed when they all work together.

    what you bring up here, i think, is also the issue of synchronicity. that’s interesting. something to think about …

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