Cole Walliser

On redefining change for yourself

Going through change isn’t easy. 

Actually, let me rephrase that: going through any significant change is never easy. We tend to appreciate a stable, continuous, unwavering flow of life, so I find it quite unfortunate that our lives never actually exist like that. The reality is that the opposite happens, all the time and at any moment. Things are constantly changing, progressing, and adjusting. Granted, some of these changes are quite small and have no real bearing on your day-to-day life, but every once in a while, a significant change comes along and stops you in your tracks.

We tend to view the world through a binary lens. Unconsciously, I often characterize each changing moment as either good or bad, right or wrong. However, most of our experiences are never truly "black" or "white." All of our changes, all of these moments prominently live in shades of grey.

We gravitate towards a binary that never really exists in the world. So, it's no surprise that we often have trouble navigating through these hazy changes. We prefer things to be stable and clear.

I'm not sure that viewing the world this way helps us navigate through life, but that doesn't seem to stop us from trying. So why do we do that? Instead of trying to understand it, I've learned to accept it, and after I did that, I figured out how to use it to my benefit.

I learned that in a moment where change is inevitable and you are forced willingly or unwillingly into a new world, you still retain the ability to guide yourself through this change and ultimately what direction you come out of on the other side.

Let's say that you're entering a new world through a significant change. For example, you finally landed your dream job. You're experiencing a wide range of emotions. You're excited, although a bit nervous, but ultimately happy and relieved. You view these as good changes. Yay. Great. You're done! Sounds simple enough, right?  

I don't think you need or want much guidance when changes are beneficial. But what happens when change takes a turn for the worse? You lose your job. You break up with your partner. You lose a loved one. How do you navigate these horrible, painful changes and come out of the other side better than when you entered it? This was when I learned how to navigate through changes I did not welcome or anticipate.

When I was seventeen, I lost my best friend the summer before my senior year of high school. Danielle—the person I was the closest to. The person I shared all of my thoughts, fears, goals, hopes, and dreams with. We met in a 9th grade social studies class and had an instant connection. As our friendship blossomed, Danielle always referred to us as being "on the same wavelength." We passed notes to each other and talked on the phone for hours. In a way, it was sort of romantic, but I'm not sure I can call it that since we never dated. It's complicated to characterize a meaningful relationship with someone when you're 14. Regardless of whatever label I apply, I never experienced a more meaningful connection with another person.

However, in an instant, she was gone.

While Danielle was waiting for someone to pick her up at night on an empty rural road, a driver fell asleep at the wheel. They swerved off the road, headed into the direction that she was sitting, and struck her. This was the day before my 17th birthday; I received the news the next day. At 17, I couldn't imagine anything more tragic, more traumatic, more gut-wrenching than what I experienced.

I wasn't the only one impacted by Danielle's death. She was loved by the entire school. We were all at a loss for words on how to process what happened. I didn't have the tools to cope with my grief. I was numb by the thought of getting through the rest of my life without her. I didn't know how I should act, think, or feel. I observed my classmates as they experienced a spectrum of emotions and reactions. Some were more visible coming from a place of rage, despair, and utter devastation. Although the more visceral reactions were understandable, I didn't want to succumb to these emotions. So, I kept watching and observing to look for something that resonated with my feelings. Some people withdrew. Some people turned to alcohol or drugs. Some ignored it and tried to get by.

For me, as my numbness faded, it was replaced by sadness and then anger. "Fuck this!" I thought. "Fuck everything!" However, I gradually began to realize that I didn't want to stay like this. Despite that anger that I felt, I knew that taking that stance forever would bring a life of unhappiness and resentment. This stance would invite the habit to use Danielle as an excuse or a crutch, and she wouldn't want that. Neither did I. I then found myself in a position to ask the question, "could this tragic experience be a reason for progression? A reason to try harder and succeed in life?"

How I reframed this change defined my life moving forward. I learned that how I chose to react in moments of change can impact the direction of my life. I couldn't undo what had happened, but I could change how I responded to it.

At that time, we must have been studying Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" because I viewed this as the road less traveled. Nevertheless, I was determined to forge new ground and create my own path. The path where there's a chance to turn this horrible and painful experience into a positive one.

The downward spiral path was simple, straightforward, and relatively easy: be mad, lash out, feel shame, and repeat. I figured if I did the exact opposite of that, it might lead me in an upward direction. Whenever I am mad, I should think of Danielle. How she inspired or motivated me. I should go DO SOMETHING I LOVED like skateboarding, seeing my friends, filming. Ultimately, being thankful, embracing those around me, feeling inspired, and repeat.

Although it wasn't easy, my change in mindset gradually worked. I learned to give myself space and pause in any negative situation. I would always stop myself and ask, "what do I feel like doing? What do I think I should do?" This resonated with me back then, and it still resonates with me to this day. I use this for all changes, big or small.

Now, instead of viewing and approaching change from a binary perspective. I start with examining my well-being and reactions to it rather than to the change itself. I will continue to embrace change in this way. Gradually, progressing through this ever-changing world filled with shades of grey.