Disorienting Dilemmas: Facing Life Challenges


Source: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle, 1987

Who has had little people, kids, in their lives in the last 27 years? Yes? So this character will be familiar to you then?  Someone tell me who he is. Yes! – THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR from the 1987 classic children’s book of the same name by Eric Carle. I read this story to my kids endless times and am ready to read it again to my grandchildren – when they finally get here.

Do you remember the story? This little guy is resolutely ravenous. “I’m still hungry” is his constant catch-cry. From Monday through to Saturday he eats everything in his path in increasing quantities. Pretty healthy stuff too. 1 apple, 2 pears, 3 plums, 4 strawberries, 5 oranges then a big pigout on Saturday with chocolate cake, ice- cream, pickles, Swiss cheese, salami, a lollipop, cherry pie, sausage, a cupcake and watermelon. Mmmm … Ice cream and pickles … can only mean one thing … he must be pregnant! By Sunday he is a BIG FAT CATERPILLAR with a tummy-ache.

Then something happens – we don’t know what – that makes him retreat into his house – his cocoon.  He stays there for two weeks and then something happens – we don’t know what – that makes him eat a hole in his house and emerge as a BEAUTIFUL BUTTERFLY.
Nature has given us the classic metaphor for TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE.

We hear a lot about the need for CHANGE these days. There’s a lot of change happening around us. Climate Change, Running out of natural resources, Our global financial system of endless growth showing cracks. We need to change to adapt. But are we changing in the most effective way? Are we stuck in incremental change, are we just stuck or are we heading towards transformational change?

Look at our very hungry caterpillar. Eric didn’t tell us but he was in week 1 of the Michelle Bridges 12 week challenge. He wanted to improve his health and fitness. He did really well Mon-Fri and then he blew it on Saturday with his pig-out. No matter, he will just start again on Monday. That’s incremental change. You’re able to integrate it into your daily routine. TWO STEPS FORWARD AND ONE STEP BACK.

Look at our butterfly. It can never ever go back to being a caterpillar. The change is PERMANENT and IRREVERSIBLE. That is transformational change: permanent and irreversible.

So we have incremental change and transformative change. It seems the difference between the two is happening here in the middle. It raises 3 questions:

  1. What happens that makes the very hungry caterpillar want to go into his house?
  2. What goes on behind closed doors?
  3. What makes him want to emerge?

Eric doesn’t go into that detail in his book. So let’s dip into what I have learned in my Social Ecology and Sustainability studies. I was introduced to Jack Mezirow – the Father of Transformative Learning. His research showed that you go through 10 phases during a period of transformative learning. That’s what is happening here in the middle. Let’s summarise these phases so they answer our 3 questions.

1. What happens that makes the very hungry caterpillar want to go into his house?

Jack Mezirow tells us: A Disorienting Dilemma – a life event that does our head in – it doesn’t fit with any of the ways we have always made sense of our world. It does not compute. We feel lost, confused, disconnected, disoriented in our once familiar world.

Have you experienced a Disorienting Dilemma? The psychiatrists list of major stressors in our life are good examples: moving house, marriage, divorce, having a baby, health problems, the death of a loved one.

I experienced a disorienting dilemma on the 4th April two years ago. It was the Wednesday before Easter and Shane and I were late home because we had been doing our Easter food shop. We got home on dusk to find 2 police officers waiting for us. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news because they wouldn’t tell me anything until I was inside, sitting on the couch. All I could focus on was the guns in their holsters. It just wasn’t right seeing guns in my house. Like it just wasn’t right what the younger one was telling me: “Mrs Davis, I regret to inform you that your son, Robert, has been killed in a car accident.”

This does not compute. How am I meant to react to that? I had to tell Robbie’s sister, Robbie’s Dad, Robbie’s Grandpa, Robbie’s best friends all before they heard it on the grapevine. Everyone had the same reaction. They grabbed their middle, doubled over and the sound they made was like an animal being tortured. I looked at them and thought ooooh I don’t want to feel like that. And I didn’t. I drifted off. It was like my soul left my body and was out here – adrift – like an astronaut floating in space but still connected to the spaceship by a lifeline. This was my disorienting dilemma. I was faced with an event I had no way of processing, no cultural cues to guide me. I was suddenly lost, confused, disconnected from my world. Everything was unfamiliar and would never be the same again. There was only one thing to do: retreat.

2. What goes on in the caterpillar’s house behind closed doors?

Jack Mezirow tells us: Critical reflection – we are forced to examine our “habits of mind” – our unexamined beliefs and values – and then we plan a new course of action. Our existing beliefs and values cannot take in and make sense of the disorienting dilemma so they need a review.

We all are walking around with “habits of mind” – with unexamined beliefs and values. These influence our thoughts, our words and our actions. Let me show you what I mean. What age will you be when you die? Think of a number. The first time I did this exercise was when I was 26. My answer was 65. What age did you come up with?. All different answers. Where are these numbers coming from?

Think about where your number came from. My 65 number came from being told all my life how longevity didn’t run in our family. Mum had died when I was 21 from complications from Multiple Schlerosis (MS). Dad came from a family of 11. All 10 of his siblings were dead by 65, including his Mum and Dad. Am pleased to report that Dad didn’t buy into the family line and is still alive and well at 87. So at 26 I was walking around with the belief that I would die at 65 years old. This was a habit of mind – an unexamined belief for how I made sense of my world.

Through critical reflection I decided I didn’t like that number and changed it to 150 years old. You may laugh – my kids did. That is until we watched an SBS documentary that said it is now within the realm of possibility for humans to live to 150 years old. You should have seen the kids’ jaws drop!

So with critical reflection you can examine your unexamined beliefs to broaden them to make sense of and include your disorienting dilemma.

Our very hungry caterpillar stayed in his house for 2 weeks. I stayed in mine for 2 years. Last Friday we had Robbie’s 2nd memorial. What have I been doing for 2 years?

I have been examining my unexamined beliefs and values. I even reassessed my 150 year life. A number is no longer important to me. Robbie only had 22 years and he lived every moment. For me now it is about quality rather than quantity. I focus on being grateful for and making the most of every moment I have. I have never felt more alive than I do today. What a gift Robbie has given me. Carpe Diem!

3.    What makes the caterpillar want to emerge?

Jack Mezirow tells us that once you have had the time out for critical reflection and to create a plan, it’s time to implement the plan.

This is when our caterpillar starts to nibble a hole in his house to emerge.

It is what I am doing tonight. I am emerging into the public arena to start implementing my new way of being in this world without Robbie. Tonight I am launching my new venture called OFF THE CUFF where I speak and write about my transformative learning experiences as a result of Robbie’s death.

In a nutshell my plan is to speak in public about death. Jerry Seinfield said that “according to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”


Source: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle, 1987

Ladies and Gentlemen, embrace the Disorienting Dilemmas in your life because they offer an unequalled opportunity to fast-track personal growth resulting in a permanent and irreversible expanded worldview. And the world right now needs more butterflies!

Zonta Flyer

I delivered this speech at the Zonta – Women of Strength Membership Meeting 9 April, 2014. There were about 35 women in the audience. Thanks to Zonta and Naomi for the opportunity. This event also marked the official public launch of my new venture: Off The Cuff. Thanks to everyone for their support, encouragement and love. Chatting with people afterwards it was clear some found it quite thought-provoking and some quite confrontational. It reinforced for me how we don’t do death very well in our culture and confirmed I am heading in a worthwhile direction with my research.

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