stop waiting for an epiphany - here's what it actually takes to change your life

What does it sound like when you change your mind?’- Seth Godin

I was 17, clinically depressed and I was waiting for an epiphany. I tried to have one, I really did.

Ensconced in a psychiatric unit for a full year, I paced the corridors waiting for my epiphany. Everyone promised me it would come. Don’t worry, they said, one day you will wake up and know the way forward. One day you will wake up and be better. The prospect was exciting. So, I tried hard. I read deep books, watched documentaries, went to therapy, made art, had conversations with people which lasted up to 10 hours at a time. Someday, everything would connect in my mind and I would be a new person. Lightning would flash and I would stop being depressed, everyone would notice the change and I would be immediately discharged.

I saw a doctor who tried hard to make me have my epiphany. She told me metaphorical stories, intended to provoke insights. One time she told me about someone who designed a bike which works the opposite to a normal bike, so people fall off at first, then relearn how to ride and then can’t ride a normal bike. I got the point- I had learned to function wrong and now normality was scary. Still, no epiphany. Another time she told me about a book in Romanian called The Future Begins on Monday. She said she would come and see me again on Monday and maybe I could make a fresh start. Monday came and nothing changed- I still cried until my eyes swelled, still had a panic attack behind my wardrobe, still had ‘low mood and self-isolation’ written on my notes.

In the end, I never had an epiphany. I left because I turned 18 and legally could, not because of some radical change. I am still waiting for my flash of lightning. 

Epiphanies might make for good plot lines, yet they are rare in real life. When I consider every person I have met who has quit a drug addiction, stopped drinking, left an abusive relationship, recovered from a mental illness or made some other radical change, it never happened in a moment. The same goes for my own life. What should have been wake up calls have never hit home. My drastic choices have always been the result of slow, incremental changes. There was never a flash of lightning.

Looking back, I can see that waiting from an epiphany has only ever held me back. No one expects a sudden insight to repair their broken leg or eradicate a tumor. When it comes to our bodies, we all know that change and healing take time, effort, and meticulous care. Our minds and our lives are much the same. Nothing alters overnight. Joan Wickersham describes the process of healing as ‘like the slow absorption of a bruise.’

But, what does it sound like when you change your mind? If true epiphanies are rare, what does it take for someone to make a major change?

An answer comes from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom:

‘I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day where I said, Henceforth, I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.’

In other words, big changes happen in small increments. Brain scans have shown that we make most decisions before we are even aware of them. Even when an apparent epiphany materializes, it is the result of an accumulation of thoughts. Tony Robbins has talked about his process of conditioning- surrounding himself with inspiration for long enough cannot fail to have a powerful impact. David Foster Wallace summarized this process in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men;

‘In reality, genuine epiphanies are extremely rare. In contemporary adult life, maturation & acquiescence to reality are gradual processes. Modern usage usually deploys epiphany as a metaphor. It is usually only in dramatic representations, religious iconography, and the 'magical thinking' of children that insight is compressed to a sudden blinding flash.’

Right now, I am in a situation where I need to make a major change to my life. My current question is this: if I can't expect an epiphany, what can I aim for instead? How does anyone do it? What precedes action?

The solution is obvious when I look back on the grand decisions I have made over the years. When I decided to throw out all my stuff, to leave university, to go traveling, to write full time and more. It is easy to fall prey to the narrative fallacy and imagine that I knew what I was doing, had a plan and a clear path. Yet I never did. Each pivot has been about action first, then thinking. I threw myself into action, then everything began to make sense afterward. In between taking action and figuring out if it was a good or bad idea, there was always a terrifying time period. A time when I alternated between pure elation and crippling doubt

We all have to go through these uncertain, purgatory-like times after making choices and changes. Life would be much simpler if everything did change in an instant, if we could wake up one day and know the way forwards.  

Instead, more often than not, change is a slow and bewildering process. Sometimes we have to act without a reason, then find one later. Sometimes we have to invent our own logic. And sometimes we have to be content with incremental progress, not light bulb moments. 

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