How Have Epiphanies Affected Your Life?Those who talked about their major epiphanies had noticed and listened to the messages reaching their consciousness; they also believed and acted on their insights and were open to serendipity.
What have been your greatest personal epiphanies? What were the turning points that changed your life? With these provocative questions, Dr. Regina Toman, assistant dean of public affairs and community service at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, opened her session on turning points and epiphanies at Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln in October 2011.
Her doctoral dissertation was a qualitative study of the lives of five women who became college or university presidents. Central to her approach were the turning points or epiphanies—terms she uses interchangeably—in their lives and careers.
In his book Interpretive Biography (1989), Dr. Norman K. Denzin defined epiphanies as “interactional moments and experiences which leave marks on people’s lives.” He identified four types:
• Major epiphany. This is the one big event that touches every fabric of a person’s life.
• Cumulative epiphany. This is a representative event that marks a reaction to experiences that have been going on over a long period of time.
• Minor epiphany. The event may be small but serves as a symbol to illuminate a larger issue in a life or relationship.
• Retrospective epiphany. Sometimes we don’t recognize something’s significance until long after it occurs. In later reliving the experience, we assign meaning to it.
She found all four types among the women in her study. “The epiphanies added richness and diversity to each participant’s life story,” she told WIHE.
They affected the women’s self-understanding, selfimage and self-confidence; influenced their decisions about education, career, marriage and family, and helped shape their values, priorities and goals. Turning points that touched their career choices helped propel them toward the presidency.
Many of their stories reflected the historical backdrop of their times when ideas were changing about women’s roles, responsibilities, abilities and rights.
One president who described herself as unreflective said she’d had no epiphanies, but each of the rest reported several. The names used below are pseudonyms. “The presidents’ epiphanies provide a glimpse into the challenges faced by women in the past, as well as how those challenges were overcome,” Toman said.
One autumn lunch hour during her senior year of high school, Claire—now president of a private Midwestern liberal arts college—ate at a picnic table on the school grounds with her classmate Charlie. Their relationship was close and platonic.
As she bit into her peanut butter sandwich, he talked about topics from the history class they’d just left. He turned and asked her opinion, as though she had a brain and an opinion that mattered.
She stopped eating and smiled. For the first time in her life, someone invited her to participate in an intellectual conversation. She thought of that day often during her lively intellectual conversations in college, its importance as a turning point becoming more evident over time.
Epiphanies in college changed the course of her career. Working toward a degree in education with a sense of inevitability rather than excitement, she found her English classes much more interesting than those in education.
During her senior year a guest speaker on her campus was President Polly Bunting of Radcliffe. It had never occurred to her that a woman could be a college president. That didn’t become Claire’s goal, but it opened her eyes to the possibility of doing something besides teach children.
She also came to realize during college that graduate school was an option. She hadn’t thought of it before as something women could do. Each of these counts as a major epiphany, changing the entire course of her career.
Minor epiphanies included her exploration of religious beliefs and movement toward a more liberal religion than the one she grew up in. She began to see her childhood home as sheltered. The women’s movement during her college years also empowered her to rethink societal norms for girls and women. “I was beginning to think for myself and [understand] my own sense of what my rules were, rather than somebody else’s,” she said.
Now a private liberal arts college president in New England, Olivia recalls her early years in Massachusetts when her father would bring home the Sunday New York Times. “That was the first time I realized there was a world outside our little world,” she said. It was a minor epiphany that illuminated a world of possibilities besides her small home town.
Her big turning point in high school was replacing her glasses with contact lenses. Her glasses had symbolized everything she valued in herself: her intellect and academic ability. At the same time, her self-consciousness about them held her back in other ways.
During college, a life-changing experience occurred during a junior year abroad. In Scotland she took the opportunity to rewrite her social side and create a new personality in place of the “tall, shy, gawky girl” she had been.
Later she had one of those epiphanies that became meaningful in retrospect. The young man sitting next to her on an airplane, freshly graduated from college, asked what her plans were. As he talked about his strategies to maximize his opportunities, she realized that she would rather stay open to possibilities than create a road map for her life. She remembered this often on other flights and in thinking about her career.
This approach opened the door to an epiphany in graduate school, where her fellow students elected her to a faculty/ grad-student relations committee she hadn’t known existed. “I thought, ‘Oh! They think I would be good at this, so I’ll have to get interested and be good at it.’ And I was. I loved going to those meetings and talking about things that I didn’t even think about before,” she said.
As her college teaching career progressed, things people said changed her perceptions and self-image. When she was trying to get her first manuscript published, a colleague told her, “Well, stop calling the damn thing your manuscript and call it your book!”
Her college president took her to lunch and said, “Well not now, but someday you’ll be a good administrator . . . You’re clear, you’re well organized, you’re articulate.” And someone mentioned one day that she might want to be dean of the faculty. All those comments expanded her view of the possibilities ahead.
President of a state university in New England, Sydney recalls introducing herself to a new girl on the first day of junior high school. She and Diane walked home together and became the best of friends. She describes it as “a milestone of sorts,” the first time she had consciously reached out to someone.
Their friendship lasted. They were the only two girls in math and science classes filled with boys. One day they were called out of physics to take the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Test. Because she knew the tricks of multiple choice tests, she made the top score. Humiliated at being presented with a Betty Crocker pin in a school assembly, she shared many laughs with Diane about it afterward.
During her relationship with a boyfriend in high school and into college, she concluded that “girl persons were better than boy persons.” That was a cumulative epiphany, the result of a long series of experiences with a boy who acted like the boss and girls who interacted as equals. It took further years of confusion and exploration to determine that she was a lesbian.
She went on to graduate school and college teaching. When she was about 40 and a full professor and department chair, the university president asked her to be his assistant. That experience changed her life and put her on the path toward president.
Unlike her years as a scholar and professor, suddenly she was part of a work family. “I had people who cared if I showed up every day, and projects that we were doing together and an overview from the top of the institution that I hadn’t had before. And I had a blast!” she said.
One winter day in childhood, Theresa—now president of a Catholic women’s college in the Midwest—was walking home from school with her sister, Joanie. Joanie dropped her books and called for help to pick them up. Freezing cold, Theresa refused to stop and help.
Ever afterward she recalled that was her first real sin. As a good Catholic child she had memorized lists of sins like murder or theft or adultery, long before she had any idea what adultery was. Her epiphany when she didn’t help her sister was, “Oh, maybe this is really what sin is.” She felt the meaning of sin for the first time, even though she hadn’t done anything on the lists.
Not all epiphanies are positive or even accurate. After her brother died from cancer, the family moved from California to the Midwest. Facing their first Midwestern winter, Theresa and Joanie shared the thought, “My parents brought us here to die.” It was their cumulative interpretation of their brother’s death, the move and the bitter cold.
Another death that proved a turning point was that of her father, who had a heart attack while talking to her on the phone. It affected her profoundly with a sense of her own mortality. “You have only so much time to live, and what do you really want to do with that?” She became more reflective and more attentive to people.
She was a nun teaching in a Catholic high school when the order asked her to work in administration. That was a major epiphany that changed her education and career. Encouraged by her order, she earned graduate degrees in theology, taught at the college level and was eventually recruited as president.
She described her religious vocation as a different kind of call. “You’re not choosing it as much as it’s choosing you,” she said. “I don’t mean that people tell me what to do. That’s not the way we do it anymore. It’s more that you’re open to the possibilities around you in a different way.”
What are your epiphanies?
What have been the interactions, conversations or events that changed the direction of your life? “A personal inventory is a great place to start,” Toman said. She encourages reflecting on your life from childhood on and identifying the turning points that influenced your life journey.
Think about how and why each epiphany made a difference. Remember, not all epiphanies are positive and not all are recognizable as epiphanies until long after they occur.
Taking the time for this reflection, you can “integrate that self-knowledge in ways that will enhance, enrich and improve your life,” she said.
She recommends Elise Ballard’s book Epiphany (2011), a collection of the stories she has gathered from people in all walks of life, from Maya Angelou and Ali MacGraw to personal acquaintances and strangers. She recorded and videotaped their accounts of the moments of insight that changed their lives. Ballard says on her Web site that the first step to moments of insight is to pay attention.
Those who talked about their major epiphanies had noticed and listened to the messages reaching their consciousness; they also believed and acted on their insights and were open to serendipity.
In the same vein, Toman suggests that awareness, openness and ongoing reflection can help you make the most of each epiphany as it occurs. Receive each epiphany as a gift.
“Epiphanies are one of the most astonishing gifts,” she quoted Ballard. “They aren’t casual things that just slide across our consciousness. They stop us cold in our tracks and we have to examine them. What’s inherent in understanding these moments is the concept of hope—hope, solution, direction, and then, on a deeper level, some peace of mind.”
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