I am writing this week's column from Salt Lake City, Utah. Our daughter will be starting graduate school here at the University of Utah and my wife and I drove with her from Milwaukee this past week to help her get settled. A good old fashioned road trip is always good for the soul. Along the way, we stopped for a few days of hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was our first visit to the area and while we knew we would only be able to scratch the surface of all that it had to offer, we were excited to get a taste of this rugged, majestic park. As it turned out though, my wife and daughter did get a nice taste of the park, while I, on the other had, got a nice taste of altitude sickness.
I did not handle this well. I kept thinking to myself, “We will only be here for a short amount of time and I simply don't have time for this.” This, as it turned out, was exactly the problem. We had driven from an altitude of a few thousand feet above sea level to 9,250 feet in just a few hours. What I now have learned about altitude sickness is that it is essential to give one's body time to gradually acclimate to the lower oxygen levels of higher altitudes, it takes time. We had made the change in altitude far too quickly for my body to adapt, and because we only had two days to spend the in the park, there was not enough time for me to adjust and to enjoy a long hike. I did, however, push through the severe headaches, nausea and shortness of breath caused by altitude sickness to experience a few short hikes, for which I am grateful. But, it wasn't easy.
While things didn't go exactly as planned, I did learn yet again some very important lessons about change. First, I learned that we are all affected by change differently. My wife and daughter were not at all affected by the change in altitude. They had no problem going on longer hikes while I sat on the porch of our hotel room holding my aching head. Remembering that we all acclimate to change at different rates is an important lesson for relationships and for families in particular. The same change--a move, a job loss, a child leaving home, retirement, an illness--can have a very different effect on each member within a family. One family member may be thriving and energized by the change while another is experiencing “nausea and headaches”.
This same principle applies to changes within organizations as well. Restructuring within an organization or a congregation, for example, will have very different effects on people. Some people will adapt effortlessly and be energized by the change. Others will take much longer to adapt to the change and their initial discomfort may be mistakenly judged as resistance and refusal to change.
I was just beginning to feel a little better in the high Rockies when it was time to move on. I have no doubt that if had been able to stay longer I would have eventually become fully acclimated to the conditions. This was again, another important lesson. Acclimation to change happens in real time, not in the time frames we tend to create in our heads about how we wish change would occur.
Perhaps you or someone you love is dealing with a sudden change and perhaps that change is accompanied by some uncomfortable feelings. I hope my recent discomfort due to sudden change will help you have a little more empathy and patience for them or for yourself. Giving ourselves and the people we love the time they need to acclimate to sudden change will in the end help everyone breathe a little easier.