The Four Seasons of Tough Times

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun… Ecclesiastes 3:1

The belief that every challenge has four distinct stages has occupied a ridiculous amount of my attention over the past dozen years. This is because I am convinced it is one of the most helpful truths for navigating difficult circumstances. Yet, when I seek to explain (stage 1) how tough times begin, (stage 2) what the middle of the journey looks like, (stage 3) how to adapt and (step 4) how to get to the end…I feel like I get too many blank stares. I want to exclaim, “Trust me! This is important, it will save you,” but instead I wonder if I’m making as much impact as the ill-kempt man wearing the sandwich board on the street corner pronouncing the end of the world. Both passionate and neither of us getting our message across.

So, to not lose you, my fair readers, as I try to pass along this jewel, I’d like to propose the following analogy to describe the four-phased journey concept and its importance:

Just in the northern climes of North America, tough times can be seen as moving through four distinct seasons. During difficult circumstances, we start in the autumn. Things begin to “fall” apart — leaves break away from the trees, plants freeze and die and what we had counted on to feed us all summer ends. In tough times terms, the trees we had been going to for fruit could be a marriage, a friendship or good health — we watch them crumble and hope that we can find a way to make it last — but if it’s time is up, no amount of vigilance will stave off the end.

So, then comes winter, or the messy middle of tough times. It seems impossible that something will grow again during this season. It’s dark, inhospitable and can be really depressing.

If can wait out winter, spring comes again with a promise of new beginnings. There is more light and optimism. Time to till the soil, decide what to plant and ready for the growing season. And, if we are courageous enough, we will plant seeds and do the work to create a new garden (i.e. work to create a new relationship, job, or home). We must care for the new seedlings, get rid of the weeds to get back to a stable place once more.

Earlier this month, after presenting a keynote lecture on thriving through tough times, a soft-spoken grandmother approached me. “When you talked about approaching tough times like an old Montana rancher, I got it,” she said. After raising children and crops in New Mexico and northern Canada, she told me that recognizing the stages of each difficulty had saved her. “When the kids were young I copied and pasted a passage from Ecclesiastes on my cupboard to keep me sane through the years,” she added and began to recite, To everything there is a season, time for every purpose under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”

During bad circumstances, it really helps to remember that there is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. For each set of tough times there is a minimum suffering period. With a death of a grandparent, it might be a year for example. But, not acting appropriately during each tough times “season,” you can maximize your imprisonment in difficult circumstances.

In the winter, or the messy, chaotic middle phase, trying to plant new seeds wastes your resources. Ask any rancher. Winter is when you rest. You sharpen your tools and nurture your stock. You want to slow down, take care of yourself and your home. You can’t plow the fields and trying would be silly. Rushing around is a foolish, and in the depths of January, can be a dangerous activity.

The advice for the winter of difficult conditions is the same. When something has ended, be it a job or a relationship, trying to quickly create something new is counterproductive. We need to recover. We need to take stock in where we stand. Rushing around and using up our resources is foolish and can be dangerous as we exhaust what collateral or energy we have in a harsh, dark climate.

There is a time to rest and there will be a time to risk. During a challenge’s spring and summer, we will need to be rested and ready to act. Where after a loss, we must be brave enough to wait through the winter, we must also be bold enough when the time comes to choose to try again.

Each season presents unique tests. Not acting seasonally appropriate circumvents the process. Rushing around and trying to plant in winter means that we won’t have any reserves to take advantage of spring. Not getting to work in the spring will also have us missing or not taking advantage of prime growing season.

Meanwhile, we live in a culture focused only on action. It believes that when things are not going our way we need to think positive, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Yet, this is not global wisdom. For example, like Ecclesiastes, Taoism is based on discerning in which season we reside and acting accordingly. It is said that by going with the natural flow of each challenge, Taoist masters exert minimal energy and are able to live well past a hundred years old. There is a time to wait and a time to move. Knowing the difference allows us to flow effortlessly through each major change back to stability.

So, when tough times hit, notice:

1) Are structures or relationships ending (1st stage of disruption or “autumn”)

2) Are you in dark times, dealing with loss and no new solutions in sight (chaos or winter)

3) Can you see new possibilities, is it “time” to get moving again (adaptation or spring)

4) Are you called to try new things, be bold, act (stability or summer)

Then ask, what would a wise Minnesotan or Montanan farmer do? For every thing there is a season…

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