The Power of Pain / Why It Often Takes a Crisis to Bring About Change


It was late in the afternoon and I was flying home following a speaking engagement. I had an hour or so between flights and I grabbed a sandwich and began to check my email. I wish to this day I had simply waited until I got home to “check in”.  As I scrolled through my inbox, I happened to open the one with the bomb in it. Reading that email ushered in The Day Life Fell Apart.

The power of pain and why it often takes a crisis to bring about change with Nicole Johnson, author of Creating Calm in the Center of Crazy as featured on the Belong Magazine blog

Pain may well be life’s best teacher if we are willing students.

I would like to tell you that it doesn’t necessarily take a crisis to wake you up, but it did for me. I remember a comedian making fun of the saying, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” by adding, “This could be true, but let’s just say, a gun really helps!”

A crisis might not make change happen, but let’s just say it really helps. Why? Why does it seem take some life altering event to push us to finally make the changes we’ve needed or wanted to make for a long time?


I had been aware for years that my life was crazy. I found myself thinking regularly that I wanted to be living a different way long before The Day Life Fell Apart. I wasn’t alone in this. I have found parents at my children’s school, neighbors on my street, women I talk to at events who also know life is too crazy. They say things like, “This is insane,” or “I can’t keep living this way,” but six months later, nothing has changed.

Wanting life to settle down or change never results in actual change because “want to” is not strong enough to make it happen.


I’ve been a subscriber to Real Simple magazine for ten years, and my life is not one bit simpler because of it. In fact, the subscription itself adds pressure with every issue. How will I ever be able to simplify my life if I can’t even find the time to read Real Simple?

It’s real simple; we don’t change unless we have to.

If knowing that smoking will kill you could make someone stop, no one would smoke. But people can read study after study about smoking and its negative effects on the heart and lungs and even on a child in the womb, and still they continue smoking.  Often it is not until the crisis of cancer hits or the pregnancy test is positive that real and lasting change becomes possible.

Think about recent studies on cortisol levels in our bodies. Research proves that stress takes a toll on us physically.[i] We KNOW this, yet we continue to live with dangerously high stress levels, naively hoping and praying it doesn’t take its toll on us

Knowledge and information can only lead us to the right door; it cannot make us walk through it.


I often shake my head over the simple solutions people offer to others. While “advice” falls under the information category, advice is different from information in that it is a solution offered to you personally, usually by someone you know.

If I had a nickel for every time someone suggested balance as a solution for crazy, I could buy my own beam. It is terrible advice, not only because I don’t think balance is possible, but also because it’s impossible to balance things that aren’t equal.  Now, if balance means steadiness or stability, more yoga, or just not falling down all the time, I’m good with trying to find more balance. But if balance means making life “balance out” as if it were a checking account—i.e. spending equal time working and not working, being with your kids as much or more as you’re away from them--then this advice is a problem, not a solution.

If simple pieces of advice could bring about change, no one would ever wear torn underwear or go out in the rain without an umbrella or look a gift horse in the mouth. When someone gives us advice that doesn’t work, you feel worse than you did before you got the advice! And now people are watching to see if you’re taking their advice! Sigh. I have considered entering the Witness Protection program to be free of all this. Work and family are not equal in the hearts of parents and never will be. Can we give up this idea of finding balance in our lives? When my child comes down with the stomach flu or my mother has a stroke, I don’t think, Hmm how am I going to balance this? I just make peace with limping along. Balance, schmalance. 

A crisis does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Author Kathleen Norris writes, “The word crisis derives from the Greek for ‘a sifting’,… to jostle, sift and sort things until only what was most vital would remain.”[ii]

Recently, I accompanied my son’s class on a field trip to sift for gold. Eliot and I put our pan into the bottom of the riverbed and scooped up sand and rock and began sifting, shaking, jostling the pan from side to side. Because the gold is the heaviest thing in the pan, it sinks to the bottom, and the sand and rock float away in the water as you continue shaking and sifting. If you’re lucky, the gold is what remains. If there is no gold in your pan, you scoop and sift again, and again.

In the book of Job, God gives permission for Job to be “sifted”—and man oh man, was he ever.  Yet through this horrific and wrenching “sifting” God found gold in Job, and Job found the hand of God holding him through it all. We simply cannot sift our own hearts in the same way that a crisis can.  I know I couldn’t. I would be way too quick to “make peace” with the rocks and sand and give up on ever finding gold.

If you’ve gone through a Perspective-Altering Event at any point in your life, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You may not call it a PAE, as that is a term I just made up, but whatever you call it—crisis, sifting, dark night of the soul--you know. You’ve had to face something you never wanted to face, such as:

  • Cancer, in you or in someone you love
  • Divorce, wanted or unwanted
  • Death of a child or spouse or family member or close friend
  • Disease or illness
  • An accident
  • An unwanted job change
  • Major surgery
  • Chronic pain
  • Rejection or betrayal

These and numerous other crises pierce our lives and alter our perspective. We don’t see things the same way after something like cancer interrupts; we can’t. Life doesn’t continue on as usual; it’s different forever. Following a divorce or losing someone through death, we know life will go on, but we also know it will never be the same.

Over the years of sharing my experiences I’ve been privileged to hear the stories of many others as well. For all the different and personal details, the arc of the story is almost always the same: You’re going along happily without appreciation of how good you have it, and then the phone rings, the papers come, the discovery is made, the truth becomes known, the police knock on your door…  All of a sudden and without much, or any, prior warning, a big hole opens up in the earth around you and you drop down into a world you didn’t know existed. Or if you knew it existed, you never paid any attention to it. Abruptly, you’re in “funeral world” looking at caskets, thinking, I do not want to be here, and you notice there are six other families around you wondering the same thing. Other people, the kind you were just yesterday, aren’t shopping for caskets; they’re at Costco shopping for toilet paper. You hate them and wish you were them at the same time, but you can never go back.

Despite the fact we can’t go back—a crisis often holds us so tightly we can’t really go forward either. This is part of the power that a crisis has. This is the refining part—we just have to let it happen inside us while we’re stuck. We can’t go back and we can’t go on, so we just wait in this ‘stuckness.’

This is far from easy. As a mother, I can’t ever just “call in” stuck.  No mother can--unless she happens to actually be stuck somewhere physically. Then someone else calls in on her behalf.  “I’m sorry, Sally, Nicole won’t be bringing the cookies today; she’s stuck in the Sudan fighting human trafficking.” Apart from that, how do you say, “Hello, would you mind coming over to watch the kids so I can just sob and work on my crisis for a few hours? I don’t want to worry anyone, but I need to fall apart. ” Hmm, probably not going to happen, even though it should!

Long before the crisis hit, I’d wanted to create calm in my life and had attempted to bring it about, but it had not come. None of the information or advice I’d been given had been able to help me create calm in my life either. And then, right in the middle of the crazy, a crisis occurs, bringing the power to change my perspective on my own life. Coincidence? Not a chance. Divine intervention to teach my heart two things: not only that it was capable of being still, but that this stillness would be the key to creating the calm I’d been longing for.


[ii] Kathleen Norris. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (2008; Penguin), 74.

Nicole Johnson, author of Fresh Brewed Life, has a uniquely creative voice. As an accomplished writer, speaker, and actor, Nicole has performed in thousands of churches and venues over the last twenty-five years, including more than a decade of touring with the national conference Women of Faith. Nicole lives in Santa Monica, CA with her husband and two children.

Twitter: @nicolejohnsonla / Facebook: @nicolejohnsonla / Pinterest: NicoleJohnson / Instagram: nicolejohnsonla / website: 

Nicole's book Creating Calm in the Center of Crazy is a voice of possibility and peace for women seeking to find a calm spiritual center in a crazy, runaway world.


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