At my dermatologist’s office, I focus on the smell of the Sharpie she is using to circle areas of concern. As a skin cancer doctor in the Sunshine State, she is trained with a meticulous eye to incise and biopsy anything that is not an A+ mole. While I’m thankful for her fastidious care, this process stirs anxieties and fears in me. I tighten my chest and hold my breath.
Rationally, I know that I have no family history of skin cancer. However, my body carries an impending sense of doom. Like many of us, I have experienced intrusions when, without warning, my life changes its trajectory from something like a benign mole to cancer.
Seven years ago, after the tech completed my 20-week ultrasound with our third daughter Charlotte, I sat in the exam room scrolling through my phone. The doctor came in and asked if I would like to get my husband on the phone so that some decisions could be made. Confusion, fear, and dread filled me as I braced myself for the news. This was the day I found out my daughter had a possible genetic disorder that might be incompatible with life, a day that sent me spinning into my resourceful problem-solving and triggered the well-trained “fight” in me.
Our bodies learn to brace for reversals by engaging our flight, fight, or freeze response when our neuroception scans the environment for impending threat. Neuroception is our brain’s ability to sense safety or danger. This is the reason a baby coos at a parent and cries at a stranger. We would literally die without this innate ability.
Whether it’s the startling news that you no longer have a job, an ultrasound tech who can’t find a heartbeat, a worldwide shutdown, or the moment you realize someone you are in a relationship with is not who you thought they were, many of us know the moments when our stories suddenly take a dark turn and life as we know it is forever altered.
At a glance, these moments might feel catastrophic, but through the painful stories written into my own life, I now know these catastrophes are not the end of the story.
With each catastrophe, there’s hope for a particular type of beauty, a unique light bursting forth out of darkness, new life from “death,” a supernatural “kiss” of love that can only be fully experienced and appreciated after a catastrophe.
Now that I’m in my mid-forties, I can honestly say that nothing in my life has played out in the way I’ve expected it. The chapters of my story are far more beautiful, precarious, and painful than I could have imagined.
I recently learned of the word eucatastrophe, a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien, meaning a massive turn in fortune from a seemingly unconquerable situation to an unforeseen victory, usually brought by grace rather than heroic effort. This is the moment when it seems all hope is lost, but then the ring is destroyed. It’s that moment in the story when we can’t imagine any way out, but then…it’s the disciples watching their leader crucified on the cross and scratching their heads wondering what went wrong, but then…
While I’ve experienced many catastrophes in my life, I am beginning to develop a memory network of eucatastrophes. These were initially stories of catastrophes stored in one schema of my brain, which are transforming into narratives of redemption, rescue, personal growth, and the love of my community.
Our daughter Charlotte arrived at 32 weeks. At her birth, we found out she did not have a genetic disorder incompatible with life, but instead a rare congenital heart disease. As we faced this news, I remember my friend Sue bringing me a large supply of kombucha, zinc, vitamin C, and magnesium so my body could stay strong and give everything I had to Charlotte. This was the beginning of countless acts of love, and ultimately the mercy of God, through a thoracic surgeon, to save her life. The memory of receiving particular care is now interwoven with the trauma of the diagnosis and surgery. Recently, when I watched her first Ninja Warrior competition, I was reminded how Charlotte’s life points to tremendous reversal: from a baby in utero thought to be incompatible with life to a thriving six-year-old who loves to flex her biceps.
The word eucatastrophe ultimately points us to the New Heavens and New Earth, where, once and for all, all these catastrophes will be reversed. When we engage in stories of our own tragedies and the tragedies of others, may we not do it without hope. May we mine for beauty, redemption, and glory in these stories. and may we rest in the ultimate change in fortune that Christ will usher us into on the day when all things will be made right. May we remember this Advent season that the baby Jesus descending from Heaven into utter darkness is proof we are living in an eucatastrophe.
Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon-running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael co-founded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.