Life-Defining Moments

Oct 31


5 Responses


Helen Whitten

Posted In


Life-Defining Moments

Sorry I have been silent for a while. I have been dealing with one of those life-defining moments we have. Do you know the ones? The moments where your life turns on a pivot, or turns direction, where something inside of you bursts out and shows you the truth, or shows you a potential road ahead, or a possible dead end, so you have to do something about it, or it almost feels like a part of you might die. In a way, these are moments of growth, where all norms are void and you have to journey off the map you have created in the past. And others often won’t understand you.

We recently attended a talk at the Appledore Literary Festival by Cathy Rentzenbrink on the subject of memoir. She raised this question of life-defining moments and how they may come about. For her it was the tragic death of her brother after a car accident at the age of seventeen. You may have had a traumatic event such as this that changes all our perspectives and has ripples for the rest of your life. The loss of our first son as a baby certainly changed some perspectives for me. I knew I wanted so much to be a mother again. I also knew that I no longer feared death. If he was there, what was there to fear?

Then there are less dramatic, yet significant moments, some of which we choose and some of which happen to us.  It could be who you date, a career change, whether you chose to travel to a foreign country to live or stay for a period, a death or illness, a new home, new hobby, anything that shifts you from your previous path.

I remember that when, as a mature student, I started to think of a career towards the end of my history degree at King’s London, I could have returned to the work I was doing previously, in research. But my tutor pointed out to me that he had noticed I was good at communicating with the younger students and had I ever thought of teaching or working in a pastoral way with people? I hadn’t, but it sewed a seed that seemed worth exploring and two years later, after a great deal of retraining and a heap of self-doubt, I launched Positiveworks, my consultancy in coaching and training. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, many people around me did not understand what I was doing, but that little bubble inside me was saying ‘this is the way to go. It could be good.” And my goodness it was better than good. It was marvellous.

Holidays and travel can be life-defining too. Many people go on holiday somewhere and end up buying a property. Sometimes, also, you gain a view of life that you would not have had before. I think this happened for me and my teenage sons when we travelled into a village in Zambia and saw how happy the children were playing games in the sand. There was no Lego, no Barbie dolls. Just imagination and laughter.

My trip to Lagos, Nigeria, back in 1995 taught me to follow my gut. When I was invited out there to run some training courses for local Nigerian companies my family were unsure whether it would be safe for me to travel alone. But I had just read Ben Okri’s amazing book The Famished Road and that little voice inside me bubbled up again and said ‘Yes, go. You will be fine.’ And I was, and I met some wonderful people and got a taste for a country I would probably never have seen otherwise.

Of course gut feelings can lead you into darker places sometimes. As they say of investments, things can go down as well as up, but quite often, even when something has not turned out the way you hoped, you have gained more insights into yourself and life than you would have done had you not taken that path.

So maybe go back over your own life-defining moments, write them down for your children and grandchildren. Your experiences might show them a road they hadn’t thought of taking before, or give them the courage to follow a road that their inner voice is pointing out to them. Who knows…


5 Responses

  1. I suppose our life’s journey is composed of “Life Defining Moments” and our response to them.
    One of the wonders of medical practice is to witness how many people adapt to major and life altering events that drastically change their life’s course. For example, the tetraplegias suffered by otherwise fit young men, one caused by a broken neck in a rugby scrum and one by a similar injury caused by diving from a high rock into a too shallow pool. Paralysed from the neck down they adapted somehow to a wheelchair life. Then there were the young and older women who developed a destructive arthritis with persistent pain, stiffness and deformities, some of whom carried on activities such as tent making, gardening (and writing books about it) and caring for their families. All requiring and achieving adaptions for personal independence and day to day functions.
    It is important not to be over optimistic about these human qualities. Sometimes either because of the age of the sufferer or the extent of the challenge the individual cannot adapt. The death rate in the three months after bereavement is twice the expected and remains raised for twelve months. Is this a factor in the known increased suicide risk in elderly males?
    Although many people do adapt to spinal cord injuries some cannot face the functional consequences and choose to die.
    So life defining moments can be very harsh indeed.

    1. Thankyou David for such an insightful comment. I agree that some life defining moments are very harsh indeed. I don’t buy into the philosophy that says you are never given more than you can manage, as one would never experience suicide or depression if this were true. But life is hard and harder for some than others, though sometimes people have years of good health and then, at the end of life some difficulty. Others have harsh circumstances throughout their lives – then look at Ukraine now, impacting people of all ages. I am reading a book entitled Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help us Find our Way by Kieran Setiya. He speaks a lot about his own experience of chronic pain and suggests that living with an illness need not, as you say, ruin one’s life. It’s all about adaptation and flexibility.

  2. Good for you Helen in choosing and relishing your life defining moments and now in the middle of another one. Life led consciously for me now means acknowledging how vulnerable and fragile I am as I come up to 80y. I need to rest after lunch, tune into signals that say enough doing and more being. If I am flexible, optimistic, and live with courage and equanimity I will ‘bop till I drop’. I have a wealth of experience of life’s ups and downs. I accept Parkinsons and remain mobile and play tennis 13 y from onset. I now choose to live without thinking the grass may be greener somewhere else. Joy comes into being in witnessing small acts of kindness, time with good friends, who don’t want to change me, and the felt sense of being loved by my lovely family and with kindness to myself and others. Another life defining experience will be challenging and keep me flexible and alert or too much and life is over. Claude Bernard wrote in 1887 ‘La fixite du milieu intern est la condition de la vie libre’ .

    1. I see you living a very full life and admire you for the determination to stay strong and flexible and was delighted when the consultant said she thought you had reached a plateau in your PD. Adaptability is the key to all survival, as Darwin showed us all those years ago. Life is tough, for sure, and it has certainly not been a bed of roses for me either and yet life is also beautiful and it depends whether we decide to keep looking at the stars and believe in ourselves.

  3. Those life defining moments can be tough indeed and can reveal an aspect of ourselves we hadn’t been aware of before. I remember a sense of total peace when I broke my back, but realised what will be will be and that I would cope and adapt if I needed to. I had a complete sense of inner peace and knew that I could access that feeling whatever the future was to bring. I love your last comment in your reply to David, – “life is also beautiful and it depends whether we decide to keep looking at the stars and believe in ourselves.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.