Yellow traffic signals


“Life is hard” was the throw-away comment we teenagers used in middle school when exam results or friendships didn’t achieve the perfection we desired. This phrase covered a host of difficulties, while also blithely hiding from the world how bunched-up our guts were about the latest crisis. “Life is hard” became analogous to “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” or in more contemporary lingo, “move on, already.”

In reality, life is indeed hard if it is lived anywhere beyond surface interactions and events. Even for those who are committed to stay distanced from the world, there is a time when loss or disruption catapults us into difficult space. It is in this space that we have a choice between living in denial or accepting the change and drawing on our inner resilience. If the disruption is unjust, then resilience might look like garnering resources for challenge. If the disruption is caused by accident or death, then resilience might look like grief and anger for a time.

There is one exceedingly difficult disruption that the choices above don’t quite address: the pre-meditated change (we know it’s coming — we’ve been part of the conversation!) where the transition nonetheless feels awful. Retirement, job shift, location move, empty-nest syndrome, family drama leading to relational cutoffs, you name the change, and it isn’t easy to accept and “move on, already.” I am in job transition myself, but it’s not the first one in my life so I’m familiar with the territory. Familiarity does not mean ease. An odd tug-of-war occurs in this difficult space: self-doubt mixes with determination, regret mixes with adventuresome spirit, anger mixes with relief. The emphases shift every day, but this tension continues to pull in both directions at the same time, especially in the gut.

I was musing about change-as-disruption in the midst of deep frustration about how traffic lights work in Delaware County — actuation versus timing when traffic is heavy, which is constant during daylight hours. Choices about how to respond to change seem to be much like the yellow phase of the traffic light. Stop or go, or go really fast? Every single yellow light is a judgment call. How long has it been yellow? How long will it be yellow, verging on orange? How much traffic is sitting around? Is there a car in front of me or too close behind me? My brain pulls in dozens of impressions when deciding whether to go or stop for the yellow signal, the caution signal.

One day in October, I encountered the highest percentage of yellow lights I had ever experienced. Was it a sign? What was I being cautioned to do or not to do? Better yet, had Delaware County just discovered timing versus actuation? By the end of the day, I was laughing every time I encountered the caution light. The ridiculous amount of yellow in my life had my attention. Thoughts strayed toward lemons and butter and sunshine, but the traffic lights held their own as the dominant source of yellow that day.

When I told a friend about the preponderance of yellowness, I was gratified that she too laughed. She knows about such things as body energy, and she told me that yellow is centered in the solar plexus (stomach). It deals with determination and taking charge of one’s own wellness. The phrase associated with this energy is “I can and I will.” So much for caution! The bunched-up-gut place that came to the fore in early life-is-hard teen years is still functioning in full gear, this time shifting up to move forward with caution into “go.”

My own faith tradition enters in. Living well in transition is living in primarily a gut-place, a place of faith rather than certainty. The gut-place has potential to bring out our worst selves or our best selves. Anyone who has been part of disruptions knows this potential. High stress brings out destructiveness (neediness, sabotage, back-stabbing, striking out, poor decisions, road rage) or greatness (empathy, relationship-deepening, presence, building-up, meaning-making, road courtesy). We have a choice in the midst of change. What are you called to do with your yellow light?

By Rev. Dr. Lisa Withrow

Your Pastor Speaks

Rev. Lisa Withrow, Ph.D., is a leadership coach and consultant for Clear Transition Strategies (Withrow & Associates, LLC).

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