We were invited out to dinner last night. On the way, we stopped to pick up a bottle of sparkling mineral water - and some chocolate truffles - to take with us. When we pulled into the driveway, the sky was already turning a nasty-looking purpley-gray, so we prudently put the top up on the convertible, and raised all the car windows. I opened the drivers-side door, keys in my left hand and bottle of San Pelligrino in my right. The door swung half-open, and then slowly started back toward me as I stepped out. The side of my elbow nudged the window to keep the door open. The touch of my elbow was met with a veritable explosion of glass, as the tempered-glass window dissolved into a million tiny shards and spread out over a ten-food radius around the car. If you've ever experienced the shattering of tempered glass, you'll know what I mean when I say it's an absolutely unique experience. There's nothing else quite like it.
Fortunately, as it shattered, the glass only grazed my arm. I had four or five tiny puncture wounds on my arm, but damage was minimal. It did take us another twenty minutes or half an hour to clean up our hosts’ driveway, though. Chunks of glass the size of grains of rice were everywhere! They felt sorry for us, though, and let us leave our car in their garage for the duration of the storm, so at least that was no worry. By the end of the day today (or first thing tomorrow) the car should be back here and back in service.
Aside from sharing the shock of being caught in a shower of shattering shards, why should you care about this relatively insignificant event in my life? Like most events, if you look at them with a discerning eye, you'll find that there are real lessons to be learned. Think about it: I certainly didn't smash my elbow into the pane of window glass; I only nudged it. I had nudged it exactly the same way a hundred times before. What made the glass choose that specific set of circumstances to pass beyond the ‘tipping-point’ and to give up its integrity in an explosive burst of energy? Evidently, it was an explosion just waiting to happen.
I couldn't blame just one stressor (the nudge from my elbow) for this catastrophic collapse (I'm using ‘catastrophic’ in the technical sense of an irreversible event). There had to be a matrix or system of stressors all working together to produce what happened. Perhaps the expansions and contractions of the glass in the weather contributed to it. Perhaps the forces of the motorized convertible top settling into place on top of the window helped to cause it. We've been having high winds and heavy rains recently; maybe those had a part to play. All I'm sure of is that at some point during the ups and downs of its life, some of the molecular bonds that were holding that piece of glass together began to weaken until - at just the right (or wrong) moment - they all gave way.
I want to use the following concepts to put this lesson all together and bring it home to a practical use:
1) as Le Corbusier once said, “God is in the details:" pay attention to the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves;
2) ‘catastrophe’ isn't synonymous with ‘tragedy:’ any irreversible process is ‘catastrophic;’
3) catastrophic changes result from a cascade of tiny, reversible changes;
4) discernment is a type of spiritual awareness and life strategy that enables people to see - and, if necessary, reverse - the points within a cascade before they become catastrophic.
When was the last time you experienced a catastrophic event (in the sense we've been referring to)? If you look at all the events that led up to the final dénouement, you'll very likely see points at which you could have intervened to interrupt the event cascade (if you had wanted to stop the process and if you'd had sufficient discernment to see what was happening). That's the skill and the strategy that you can take with you into both your career and your home life: watch the details; see the flow of events; anticipate what's coming; change what needs to be changed, and change it early. At the same time, you've got to be flexible because sometimes, like glass in our driver's-side door, there aren't any warning signs and you can't see the cascade creeping toward inevitability. It just happens, and you're caught in the middle of it. Life is full of little lessons like that!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown