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Have You Ever Experienced a Pivotal Moment in Your Life?

From my podcast of the same name.

Today we’re talking about pivotal or defining moments in our lives.  Singular or plural.  Have you ever experienced one?  If so, was it painful or exhilarating?  How did it change you?

Maybe you’ve never labeled your aha moments as such—pivotal—but we all have moments where our vision has been irrevocably altered or something additional has been revealed to us.  These moments are life-changing, and can affect us positively or negatively.  And we’re not only talking major life events such as leaving home for college or your graduation or your wedding or the death of a loved one or your first baby or the purchase of your first house.  Add in there the smaller, more private things, such as conquering an addiction or going through a divorce or making a career change or overhearing a conversation that answered a question you’d been asking.

In 1964, Nelson Mandela, along with 8 others from the African National Congress, was tried and sentenced to life in prison for treason.  Mandela had led the charge against the government, protesting their use of force—their armies, police forces, and jails—against the African National Congress’s anti-apartheid movement.  The government fought back.

You might say Mandela’s speech in that courtroom on April 20th, 1964, was a pivotal moment for him.  He became a worldwide symbol for freedom and democracy, and despite the fact that he was imprisoned for 27 years, he emerged stronger than ever, serving as South Africa’s president from 1994-1999.

Many of us don’t get an opportunity to give a speech where we believe in something so strongly, we’re prepared to die for it.  Mandela did.  That day he said, “I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity.  It is an ideal for which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I would call that a pivotal moment.  Wouldn’t you?

Years ago, my therapist told me that everyone—whether or not he or she knows it—has gone through a seminal event in his or her life—one that usually occurs when he or she is a child, and one that determines major personality traits.  In the years since then, when given the opportunity, I’ve asked my friends and family what theirs is.  Some instantly launch into the retelling of theirs.  Others have more difficulty.

I knew mine right away.  I was twelve.  I had just gotten my first period, and was a little perturbed with the whole concept.  Then I was invited to visit my grandmother in California.  Just me.  It would be a special trip, where I’d get to fly on the plane alone, and spend some fun time with a person I thought was pretty darn cool.

Well, as you might have guessed, I got my second period while on my trip, complete with severe, curl-up-on-the-bed cramps and pounding headaches.  But my grandmother had other plans.  We were going to dinner with her sister and husband.  We were going to Knott’s Berry Farm.   There was no time for wallowing in pain.  I begged to stay in bed, just until the pain went away, and that’s when she leaned over and said, “Elissa, plenty of women have gone through this and survived.  I want you to get out of bed this minute.  We’re going, whether you want to or not!”

Now, that may seem insignificant to you, but my grandmother was so irritated that I had tried to thwart her plans, that when she flew home with me (to spend her week with my family as she did each summer), she told my mother that I was a selfish young girl and that I thought only of myself.  When my mother approached me with this information, sad that I could be this way, I felt betrayed, by my grandmother and by my body.

That whole thing about me being a bad person, a selfish person, became something I had to overcome.  I was going to be better from now on.  They’d see.  I was going to take care of myself, rely on no one else to help me through.  I would babysit to provide my own clothes, my own shoes.  I would pay for any incidentals I would need at school.  I wouldn’t need anyone else.

I was going to be perfect.

Although it’s frightening how I extrapolated all these promises to myself as a twelve-year-old, those character traits continued for years afterward.  I was self-sufficient, or so I thought.  I was going to show everyone, or so I thought.  That kind of thinking made me successful at so many things, but it hollowed me out inside, if you know what I mean.

So, on the one hand it got me to where I am today.  On the other hand, I’ve had to unlearn all those mantras I had going on in my head.

I’ve had other pivotal moments—positive ones.  After I’d been accepted to physical therapy school, after college, I overheard a friend talking about her adventures teaching fifth graders, and I instantly knew that I wasn’t cut out for the repetition in physical therapy.  I needed a career that changed every year, and certainly I would get this in teaching.

After reading Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, I finally realized I didn’t have to be perfect to be a mother.  I could take one day at a time.  So, we submitted our adoption papers, and today we have a beautiful, curious, fun-loving 5 year-old daughter.

When my agent emailed me, “What about Eve?” I began writing the novel that would be my first book.

Likewise, Bart Ehrman’s books have flung me onto an entirely different path, one I could never have anticipated.  The rest is history, as they say.  And I continue to have these learning moments that are changing who I am, who I want to be, and how I relate to the world.

How about you?  What events in your life have made you, molded you, into who you are today?

[Post image: Sunburst by A-Hahn on stock.xchng]

4 Comments


  1. Barb
    Dec 29, 2011

    Another great post. It’s got me thinking again about what the pivotal moments in my life have been. And it’s interesting to look back and see that the moments I choose as pivotal NOW are different than the moments I would have chosen 20 years ago. I love how we evolve and grow and change and how we’re made up of all these pivotal moments… positive and negative. Thanks for another great post.


    • Elissa
      Dec 29, 2011

      Yes, I think hindsight is always 20/20, or closer to 20/20 than when we’re “in it.” :)


  2. Zac
    Dec 29, 2011

    Kind of a sad story about your grandmother. However, it seemed to be an important step in your development (psychologically speaking). How long did it take for you to realize that this was so pivotal? Sometimes I feel as if I am going through something pivital, but after some time, it seems less impactful. Divorce seems to be a clear pivotal moment.


    • Elissa
      Dec 29, 2011

      Good question. I think I realized it was pivotal then, of course, because I was making “drastic” decisions about not trusting anyone, not relying on anyone. It wasn’t until later, after I left home, that I realized I could have stood up to the accusations. And then later, after I’d been through lots of counseling, I realized that it had molded me into a perfectionist of sorts…and of course, that was good AND bad. Then I had to take myself to task, to rid myself of all the messages I had convinced myself of.

      So, yes, I think moments have degrees of impact. I suppose you could point to the ones that you feel CHANGED you somehow. Divorce could make you a stronger, happier person OR it could make you lonely and bitter. Your choice. Either way, it’s a pivotal moment, in my humble opinion. :)

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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