Sarah Nannen: Lean Into Your Pain #30

Warwick Fairfax

August 4, 2020

After losing her husband to a military training accident, she fought for joy for herself and her four children by moving beyond surviving.

To learn more about Sarah Nannen, visit www.sarahnannen.com

Highlights

 

  • The day her husband died … and her crucible began (10:21)
  • How being in the Navy herself helped her navigate the aftermath of her husband’s death (12:29)
  • The impact on her young children (15:52)
  • Coping with two tragedies as a widow and mother (16:46)
  • How she’s helped her children know their father (19:38)
  • Why she had to reverse-engineer her grief (21:42)
  • Overcoming the thought that her job was to grieve (23:38)
  • Healing from a crucible requires grieving over time ((27:35)
  • Turn toward the difficult emotions of your crucible (29:52)
  • The power of using language intentionally when discussing your crucible (37:04
  • A historical perspective on moving beyond surviving (39:20)
  • Why just surviving is not enough to live a life of significance (40:42)
  • When she realized she was really happy … and her calling was to help others find the same joy (48:19)
  • Key episode takeaways (48:19)

Transcript

Gary S:
Welcome, everybody, to this episode of Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, your cohost and the Communications Director for Crucible Leadership. You have clicked play on, we hope you’ve clicked subscribe to, a podcast that deals in what our founder refers to as crucible experiences.

Gary S:
Crucible experiences are those moments in life that are painful, those moments in life that are setbacks, failures, traumas, tragedies, things that happen to us, things that sometimes we have a hand in bringing about. The common thread, though, of why we talk about crucibles on Beyond the Crucible is that very reason the show is called that.

Gary S:
How do you get beyond your crucible experiences? How do you get through that pain — not just deal with it and shove it down, but how do you get through it? How do you move on to a better place which we refer to as moving on to building a life of significance?

Gary S:
As we talk about this today with me is the architect, the Lego master, if you will, of Crucible Leadership, our founder Warwick Fairfax. Warwick, this is going to be, I think, a meaningful show.

Warwick F:
Absolutely. Very much looking forward to it.

Gary S:
Our guest today is Sarah Nannen. Sarah is the founder of Beyond Surviving, a movement that teaches a proactive and renegade approach to mental health and emotional resilience while navigating grief and trauma recovery. She became a military widow and solo mother of four in 2014 when an aviation accident claimed her husband’s life.

Gary S:
Her personal journey through rock bottom now informs her work with those navigating painful life transitions who seek to live extraordinary lives. She’s devoted her career to teaching sustainable wellbeing and a new paradigm of deep systemic integration of mind/body healing to anyone seeking to move beyond surviving the ride of life, to move beyond just surviving that ride of life.

Gary S:
Sarah’s background as a Naval Officer informs her leadership perspective with a community focused model for cultivating resilience and sustainable wellbeing. She is the founder of Renkon Yoga Studio and hosts The Other Side of Rock Bottom podcast, which launches this summer.

Gary S:
Take it away, Warwick.

Warwick F:
Sarah, thanks so much for being here. Really appreciate it. Before we get into your crucible experience, which some people are like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve had a crucible…” Sadly, you obviously do understand that, you know what it was, you know the date, but tell us a bit about who you are, Sarah, and how you grew up, and a little bit about your family and in the lead-up to your crucible. Just a little about Sarah Nannen.

Sarah N:
Sarah Nannen grew up in Central Illinois in the middle of America, I guess. A good old farm community U.S. of A small town. Played sports, was pretty smart. Played the violin, went off to college, did the ROTC thing, became a naval officer, married my college sweetheart. I was four babies in when I found out that he passed.

Sarah N:
I was just doing that average life. My average life looked like living in Japan at the time. We were a military family on the move. He was a fighter pilot. Once I got out of the Navy, my whole job was holding down the fort while he went off and did the fighter pilot naval aviator thing all over the world, and I had a lot of amazing experience with that. Our kids were five, four, two, and newborn that wild day that upended all of that everyday average American dream thing we were doing and changed the direction of our life forever.

Sarah N:
That’s a little bit about me.

Warwick F:
Wow. Until that point, and that was obviously the defining crucible of your life, had you had any others? Did life seem pretty normal? Wonderful family, siblings, parents, grandparents, was it like, “Life is good. I’m blessed.” Was that your experience?

Sarah N:
My mother-in-law described us as the golden couple. We were both high achievers, and everything we envisioned we managed to create. We were both very successful. I grew up with great, supportive family. Everybody was healthy. We were running marathons in our free time. And short of the hardship and the crucible of going on a deployment and being locked on a ship with 300 men for six months, I would say this is certainly the defining crucible experience of my life.

Warwick F:
What made you decide to go into the Navy?

Sarah N:
The honest answer is that I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I found myself heading off to the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana with an undecided major and a lot of potential ahead of me. I knew that I could be anything and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a passion, a purpose, a direction, but I knew that I loved to travel and I knew that I had always been a natural leader. So it made perfect sense to go off on an adventure, become a naval officer, travel the world and see if I could figure out what was important enough to me on the other side of that.

Sarah N:
I ended up majoring in Spanish and business because that seemed fun and useful enough. I got to study abroad a couple of times and then, upon graduation, off I went to meet my ship on deployment.

Warwick F:
Wow. It’s funny, as listeners would know, that it’s ironic that you had a naval career because, even though I’m from Australia, for some reason we ended up in Annapolis, Maryland, which is you would know is home of the U.S. Naval Academy. You see a lot of people in their uniforms and they all change. It’s one particular day a year when they go from whatever it is, white to blue or other way around and Navy football is big in our town. Not my background, but definitely we’re a Navy town. What kind of ships were you deployed on? What was your role in the Navy?

Sarah N:
My ships were rather small gas-turbine frigates, destroyers, cruisers, and my role, surprisingly enough, as a Spanish major, was engineering. That’s a unique thing the Navy likes to torture their young officers with. It’s offering them the role of leadership in an area that they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing and the only training you get is from the people who you’re responsible for.

Gary S:
That does sound like a government job.

Warwick F:
It does.

Gary S:
For sure.

Warwick F:
Where did you meet your husband?

Sarah N:
We met the first day of ROTC on campus at the University of Illinois. We both had high school sweethearts coming into college, but we had a connection and a friendship that first semester. By New Year’s Eve, we had ended our high school relationships and started one of our own.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Sarah N:
We go way back to … 2000 was the year that we met in university.

Warwick F:
I’m assuming you were never deployed together or anything like that?

Sarah N:
I was a naval officer. He was a naval aviator, but he was a Marine and he would not hesitate to remind you that he was not in the Navy. Thank you very much. We didn’t ever deploy together. In fact, we were married several years before we lived together because I was stationed in San Diego and he was in flight school in Pensacola. Lots of traveling back and forth and getting well-versed at long distance. Even when we weren’t deployed, we weren’t often together until I got out the Navy in 2009.

Warwick F:
Once you were married, how did your service work then? Because with four young kids, how did you manage to balance Navy and kids?

Sarah N:
I actually got out of the Navy six months after our first baby was born. I was at that decision point in my career that I had served the time that I was required to, based on the agreement that we created. Having a newborn was a no-brainer. I took a lot of maternity leave and then finished out the last three months of my … I was on shore duty so that helped nicely that my work was essentially an office job.

Sarah N:
When I got out of the Navy, then I transitioned full time to stay-at-home mom, which was also a very interesting in hindsight crucible moment, going from naval officer to commander-in-chief of the house, and all of the really big life changes that came with being at home with just my amazing baby rather than fighting the ship all day long every day.

Warwick F:
That was a big decision, but obviously everybody’s in a different situation and totally understand.

Sarah N:
We were tired of living far away from each other, to be honest, Warwick, and I had made the decision to get out so that we could finally cohabitate and have the same address.

Warwick F:
I’m assuming given he’s a Marine they don’t fly off the ships. I’m assuming they fly off land or…

Sarah N:
Sometimes they do. They’re often deployed to aircraft carriers and they also will have land-based deployments.

Warwick F:
It meant that you could actually be together as a family, at least a reasonable amount of the time.

Sarah N:
Theoretically. We did have the same address, So that helped.

Warwick F:
For sure. I understand. And so how long were you married?

Sarah N:
We were married in 2005 and we were together since 2000, so 14 years all told.

Warwick F:
Wow. It was in Japan when the… And it was a training accident, was it?

Sarah N:
Yes. Oddly enough, I was in Japan and he was in the U.S. in Nevada at TOP GUN. You may have seen the movie? Similar but different in real life. He was at a high-level training command learning some really exciting things that he was tasked to essentially bring back to his squadron and train this squadron around and had an aviation accident that we never saw coming. Of course, when they go on deployment, you’re worried all the time and anxious, but as a military spouse, I think you take training for granted so often. You know there’re risks involved but you certainly, you don’t expect it.

Warwick F:
Assuming the equipment works and there’s no pilot, what have you, you would just assume that you’ll be okay.

Sarah N:
Yes.

Warwick F:
Now, you were in the Navy, you understand the Navy Marine culture. I’m assuming you see in the movies and maybe I think you’ve recounted this: two officers, they’re walking down towards your front door and I think you mentioned, you knew why they were there. You knew…

Sarah N:
It’s just like you see in the movies. Even as I describe it, I can feel my body remembering that moment. You have those crucible moments and you can’t unsee them. And it truly is. You see them coming up the steps and you just know why they’re there, which is helpful, because I don’t think they wanted to have to say the words to me and we both took a while to figure out how to talk to each other about what was actually happening.

Warwick F:
Do they say the words? You just see… “On behalf of a grateful nation,” that whole…

Sarah N:
That came more toward the funeral time. In that moment, I think they were attempting to just say, “I don’t know how to say this, but there was an accident.” At that point, I was already in my complete dissociative psychology state of crying and shaking my head “No,” while welcoming them to my home while remembering that my children were at the lunch table and trying to navigate all of the complexity of that moment with as much grace and also the overwhelmingly human emotions that naturally come out when you find out that your partner has died.

Warwick F:
The fact that you were in the Navy, did that make any difference to how you experienced it as opposed to any other spouse of somebody in the military?

Sarah N:
I love that question. I think it didn’t affect at all my grief experience and the intensity of the emotions, but it did afford me a comfortability in that environment that I felt ease in asking questions to high-ranking members of the military that I think others may not have. Even though spouses don’t worry about rank, there is this understanding of this structure of power. I had no qualms about talking to the general in very clear terms and asking questions. I think I maybe knew what questions to ask in a way that someone who doesn’t have as much exposure to that kind of thing might. I do think it did help.

Warwick F:
Yeah. You want to know what happened and how could this possibly happen because I’m sure, again, we don’t need to get the details, but I’m sure your husband was very good at what he did otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to TOPGUN. It’s not like he’s some rookie first time up in the air. Where’s the control stick? Where’s the gauges again? He knew what he was doing so I’m sure that was one whole episode. I’m assuming there’s probably a good support system. Sadly, this happens other navy spouses. You probably could talk to not just spouses, but officers too, because you were an officer as well.

Sarah N:
Yeah. I think that I had a relationship with a lot of his coworkers. That seems like a strange word. But his peers that maybe other spouses didn’t… Again, there was a mutual respect perhaps that I had earned knowing that I had also served. I did feel again that I could call up or text someone who I saw as a friend, not just someone that worked with him and say, “I need you to tell me. Tell it to me like it is. Don’t sugar coat it. I know that you’re trying to be careful with me, but I need to know the information. Whatever you can tell me is appreciated.” That really helped me make sense of it from an objective standpoint.

Sarah N:
I think a lot of people, particularly in the work that I do now, they are left grappling with what happened, how could this happen, and I think in an attempt to protect us from what happened, they also rob us of some really basic information that helps us turn this horrific event into a very scientific matter of fact thing.

Sarah N:
That was how my son, who was five at the time, engaged with it when I told him what happened. “Daddy had a crash. They’re not sure if he’s okay. They’re looking for him, but they don’t think he’s okay.” And he said, “Well Mom, there’re helicopters with lights on them so they’ll find him. Don’t worry.” He was just so matter of fact about the thing because young children don’t have all of those social stories to apply on top of the information. It’s just information.

Sarah N:
Having that access to information and I guess the privilege or the self-appointed privilege to say, “I’m going to ask these questions that other people might not feel safe asking.”

Warwick F:
You feel you at least had a closure in the sense that you knew what happened and why. You felt like you were being given the truth not some, I don’t know, whitewashed or sanitized version for spouses. That probably helped to a degree. One of the things I think I’ve read is you have four children and your youngest daughter was, was a few weeks old?

Sarah N:
Yeah, six weeks old.

Warwick F:
That’s one, obviously, of the tragedies when you have four, even your oldest at five, it’s still young, would have some memories.

Sarah N:
Very young.

Warwick F:
But your younger ones probably obviously your little daughter wouldn’t have…

Sarah N:
She never met him actually. She was born while he was already gone. He watched her birth via FaceTime.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

Sarah N:
the pictures that we have of them together are screenshots of them looking at each other through technology.

Warwick F:
Not only do you have the tragedy of your husband but the sense of my youngest daughter and my younger kids are not going to know their father. I want to obviously talk about how you got beyond that, but I think it’s probably obvious, but the listeners are still going to want to know. Some have gone through your experience, some have not.

Warwick F:
What were you feeling about those two tragedies in a sense, your husband dying and especially your youngest daughter never having met their father? Your probably youngest two not really having many memories of… What was your emotions in those weeks and months afterwards?

Sarah N:
I really appreciate you making those two separate things because I think often people see the story as one giant tragedy with no way out and it really was this very juxtaposed personal loss and figuring out who am I now without him and also this overwhelming sense of pity being too young to be a widow, as everyone likes to phrase it, that I was clamoring to reclaim my autonomy and my existence without him in a way that was very projected upon me that my life was over and everybody knew it. They were there to help me suffer through the rest of my life.

Sarah N:
But then there was this other very clear desire to protect my children from unnecessary pain and also to really help them experience the pain in an honest way that was useful to their healing rather than hiding them from it. Navigating what’s the appropriate amount of disclosure and dialogue with a two-year-old or a five-year-old around what’s happening and helping them express that in ways that are age appropriate and even accessible.

Sarah N:
There was a lot of information involved because young children really don’t even understand the concept of death. I had to teach them what that even meant before I could get to telling them what had happened.

Sarah N:
Luckily, I had a really beautiful chaplain with me and he was able to help me create this lesson essentially and talk about some things are alive and some things are not alive and some things haven’t life in them and some things don’t have life in them, and sometimes the things that had life in them don’t have life in them anymore.

Sarah N:
We’ve looked at nature as an obvious teaching tool. You can see that this plant over here is alive. This tree was alive but is no longer alive. Remember that time we went hiking and we saw that big tree on the ground. And then you can see a fake plant in the house that clearly does not have any life in it, but looks like it could. Just giving them some basic understanding of life and death and what it means to be living and what happens when you’re not living was our starting point.

Sarah N:
They think as they grow and as they continue to grow, they will have new experiences with their grief. They will have new questions. They’ll have new understandings as they learn to identify as themselves. They’ll also look back and want to know more.

Sarah N:
One of the things that I’ve done to help them know him without having known him is that he’s always remained a part of our conversations. They’ll be able to describe him to you. They know what food he liked. They know what teams he liked. They know how he liked to spend his time. I’ve posthumously created this relationship to him for them that they feel as though they remember even though it’s simply information that I’ve continued to help them create this image of who he was and I think that’s really helpful that even though they don’t have a lot of memory of time together, they feel like they know who he was though.

Warwick F:
Wow. I just can picture just those first few months and years where you’re dealing with your own grief. You’re obviously highly intelligent person. You don’t get into the navy without being a leader. Intellectually, you know what needs to be done. It’s almost like it’s a terrible mission. It’s difficult but I need to overcome. Intellectually, you probably, in some sense, had an idea of what you needed to do, but then you’re a human being and-

Sarah N:
Thank you.

Warwick F:
Sadly, even though you might know the right things to do when you’re getting counseling and all the rest, you still have to deal with just we’re all human and it’s devastating. You’re trying to be strong, deal with your own emotions, but then you’re also trying to help your children and just be in this, to use your phrase, fetal ball weeping every day.

Warwick F:
That may be normal and totally fine, but that may or may not help your kids. It’s like, “Gosh, I got to be strong for my kids. Even if I don’t feel like I’m particularly strong at any given moment.” That’s got to be, “I’ve got to try and help them when I’m having enough trouble helping myself.” You’re, “I don’t think have any energy to help anybody else other than me.” That’s got to have been… Having four children, so young, that’s got to have been a huge stretch on internal resources to try to keep yourself sane and be strong and calm for your kids.

Sarah N:
It’s interesting that I actually had to reverse-engineer my grief after that initial shock, because within the week we were on an airplane back to the States with 13 suitcases and living with my folks and then seeking a house and buying a car and finding a pediatrician. There wasn’t actually space for me to be anything but strong and mission-driven, as you pointed out, that was my auto default, was to go straight to strong.

Sarah N:
It took probably a year before I was able to circle back around to, “Now that all that’s done and we have somewhere to live and they have a school to go to. Now, what do I do?” That was the point where I was capable to start interfacing with the grief and the emotions and the fears and the unknowns and all of the, “Who am I now?” And even the complexity of the social thing that continued where as much as I would work to find strength in myself or find something to inspire me, my identity always came back around to his death for the people in the world around me.

Sarah N:
It took a lot to really reclaim my sense of self and then even more to get to a point where I could stand in that and say, “Yes, and …” because so many people could only see the tragic widow no matter what I did and-

Warwick F:
It’s that, “Oh, that’s Sarah Nannen. She was the wife of that marine pilot at TOPGUN. It was so tragic. Oh my gosh. How will she get through this? It’s over.” It’s Sarah Nannen who is… The who-is never changes. It’s frozen in time. You’re perpetually that age and that grief stricken widow and there’s no end. Does it feel like a prison? Like they don’t let you out of the box. That’s who you are and it’ll never change.

Sarah N:
It did feel as though I was supposed to climb into that widow box and let everybody seal me in there and set up shop and be happy. “This is your job now. Your job is to grieve and remember your husband and help us grieve and remember your husband and for the rest of forever, this is what we will do. When Memorial Day comes around, when his birthday comes around, we’re going to come back around to you so that we can grieve together. That will be your life.” And it felt so small.

Gary S:
Yeah. This is a fascinating point. To hear you talk about that, Sarah, you began several minutes back where you said something along the lines of, People looked at you like your life was over, and Warwick, listeners who know your story, there’s a very similar emotion happened to you when the takeover bid failed. And in some ways what you just described in talking to Sarah about you’re supposed to be in this box and you’re the widow of this pilot, you in many perspectives people thought, “You’re the young man who tried to take over the family business and it didn’t work.” You were seen like that too.

Gary S:
I think a lot of listeners who’ve been through crucibles, through really heart-rending crucibles, have felt that experience, that they are frozen in time, to use your words, Warwick. They’re frozen in time as a widow. They’re frozen in time as a failure. They’re frozen in time as someone who’s been injured in some way physically and they’ve lost some physical part of who they were.

Gary S:
What’s great about this conversation is we’re about to turn a corner here in talking to you, Sarah, where you have created a new life from the ashes of what was from … even the expectations of people that you were going to stay there, you created a new life just as you created a new and rewarding life, Warwick.

Warwick F:
It’s so well said. Obviously, you don’t want to compare tragedies because it’s one thing losing 150-year old-family business, but a spouse now that feels pretty up there as about as bad, the toughest thing as you could possibly go through. But in a sense-

Sarah N:
It is a meaningful comparison though. It absolutely isn’t. I think it’s a very universal thread that when we have what you call a crucible moment on the other side of that we’re asked to identify as a cancer survivor or as a survivor of that person or he figured out how to fix that failure. It always comes back around that moment.

Warwick F:
They always see you… In my case, as listeners know, I was 26-year-old, just back from Harvard Business School, launched this two-billion plus takeover, wanting to bring back the ideals that I’ve found. It fails. It’s funny. My dad has the same name as me. He was knighted so he was Sir Warwick so I was always called young Warwick. That’s like 30 plus years ago. It’s a long time.

Warwick F:
But in the Australian media’s eyes, I am perpetually 26 years old, the idealistic, naive, foolish kid who let a 150-year-old family company go and I’ll forever be young Warwick. I’m in my fifties now. I don’t feel like young Warwick anymore, but I’ll always be young Warwick. The people put you in that box.

Warwick F:
In your case, in terms of how you moved on, I love the fact that you talked about even though you’re a very strong-driven person, you are sensible enough to say, “I actually need to experience the grief.” Some people would say, “You know what? I’m moving on. I’m not doing this grief thing because I’m not going to be a weak, little jellyfish. I’m not going to do grief. I’m going to be strong.” I think you had the wisdom to realize being strong doesn’t mean to say that you can’t move on without grieving.

Warwick F:
Talk about some of the steps in terms of how you moved on and then obviously how that gets into how you help others because I have a feeling that was maybe step one is you got to feel the grief before you can move on.

Sarah N:
It’s one of the strongest things we can do is turn toward it. What I find over and over, and I did this myself, is that we have this model of grief that the statute of limitations ends when the funeral happens and then everyone starts looking at their clock and watching how you behave. “Isn’t it about time you …” Fill in the blank. We have that sense of urgency of “Get on with it and get on with your life and figure it out. You’ll be fine.” When we choose to come toward it, something changes and that’s, I believe, the only way that healing can actually happen.

Sarah N:
What’s tough is that the model we’re given to fake it till you make it and put on a happy face creates this really ruptured reality where externally everyone sees us as incredibly strong and powerful and inspiring and doing great — and internally, day by day, we are imploding and crumbling and hurting.

Sarah N:
Something really damaging happens to the psyche of a human being when you’re asked to live in two realities at the same time and neither of those realities involve your truth. Neither of those realities involve healing. The performative external world is happening and maybe you’re succeeding at the performance of life, but you’re not reaping any of the rewards. You can’t experience any of the richness of your lived experience because internally you’re so devastated and your physiology and your psychology are in such a dissociative distressed place that you feel like your sleep walking through the world.

Sarah N:
I think there are a lot of people on the planet who have experienced a variety of crucible moments that are stuck in that place because it feels like success. It looks like you’re making it. When we have those moments of pain, we chalk it up like, “Oh, I’m having a bad day.” “Oh, it’s just a hard day today.” Or, “Maybe I’m depressed. Maybe I just need some medication. I don’t know. I just can’t stop crying.”

Sarah N:
I always invite those people who come toward my work with curiosity to just turn toward that, whatever you’re feeling, the fear, the overwhelm, the anxiety, the heartbreak, the tears, turn toward it and be curious about it. What’s coming through? What hasn’t been expressed? What hasn’t been said? What tears haven’t been cried? Because my experience isn’t that unique in that when something devastating happens that ruptures our reality, interrupts our sense of self, whatever it is, a death, a loss, a failure, a health crisis. There is always a huge amount of stuff to do to triage the moment whether it’s hiring lawyers, filling out paperwork, packing bags, moving houses, going to the hospital.

Sarah N:
There’s so much to do externally that that becomes the new dissociation. You distract yourself with the busyness of the work, and we’re wired to be capable of delving into what must be done because humans are amazing and that’s part of our evolution is that our nervous system actually has the capacity to override itself with all of these incredible, useful hormones to make the body parts do the things that must be done to keep survival happening.

Sarah N:
Very few people have said, “I just laid on my bed for a year and waited for it to get better.” No one gets the opportunity to do that.

Warwick F:
You had four young children. There was stuff to do.

Sarah N:
There’s a lot to do.

Warwick F:
Kids to school, kids to change. But I like what you’re talking about. There’s the being and the doing. Yes, you’ve got to get on with life, lawyers, probate, homes, moving halfway around the world, but yet you’ve also got to deal with who you are because you can’t be your best self to your friends and especially your children unless you deal with that. If you don’t help yourself, your kids will be affected, like it or not. You were smart enough to know that it’s for yourself, but it’s also for your family.

Warwick F:
Talk about… That sounds like the cornerstone. What are some other steps which as well as you help others lean into the pain, but that seems so profound. A lot of people will say, “I don’t want to lean into the pain.”

Sarah N:
It also seems very cruel.

Warwick F:
They are.

Sarah N:
You’re virtuous. You lean into the pain, don’t you want to do that?

Warwick F:
Just jump into the cauldron of molten lava and just feel that fire burning. Why would anybody want to do that? But obviously-

Sarah N:
A lot of people who start working with me say, “I expected this to be heart-wrenching, painful, excruciating, and I can’t believe that it wasn’t those things. What you’re asking me to get to is like, ‘How do we do this? How do we lean into the discomfort? How do we make time to feel it? And how do we get the resources to feel it in a way that doesn’t actually completely annihilate us?’ Because that’s what we expect.”

Sarah N:
I apologize in advance that what I’m going to say is going to sound really simple and it always sounds almost too simple to even be useful to the people who work with me and then they’re all, of course, amazed later on how life changing it is.

Sarah N:
But one of the things that I started with, don’t tune me out, is breathing practices and a yoga practice. The reason that that was so incredibly important to me was I was very adept at facilitating an out of body experience. I think that was part of why I could be so strong. I will just turn off this part of me and do what must be done. There was a very dissociative experience in the moment of hard times where I wasn’t really there and I wasn’t really present, but I could do the things.

Sarah N:
The breathing practice and the yoga practice helped me become more fully embodied. I realized that this was getting into yoga language, but when we learn how to stay present, physically, physiologically, psychologically, socially in this human being container that we’re walking around in, we suddenly have a whole new experience of our life and ourselves.

Sarah N:
These two practices not only helped me come back to myself fully and fully inhabit myself and be aware of myself and be capable of witnessing myself more honestly rather than just performing my experience. But they also helped me reset my physiology.

Sarah N:
I think that that’s something very important that we miss as humans on this planet in the game of mental health and winning at life is it’s always this external thing, cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ll just go to a therapist and I’ll talk it out and I’ll use my intellect and my language to just fix everything. You can go to all the therapy you want. If your physiology doesn’t know that you’re safe yet, the therapy will never really actually land.

Sarah N:
Part of the work on the other side of anything that ruptures your identity and your existence and sense of self is that you have to learn how to teach your body that it’s not in danger anymore.

Sarah N:
The breathing and the yoga was actually this very accessible modality that I could practice without being perfect at it to everyday say, “I’m going to learn how to let my nervous system come back to neutral and out of survival mode so that not only can I be here in this moment, but I also have access to my modern brain now.” Because when we’re in survival mode, we go down, down, down the evolutionary chain, way back to that place where everything is dangerous or safe, good or bad. We don’t have access to this incredible intellect that’s capable of immense and endless solutions to life’s problems.

Warwick F:
Yeah. It’s that whole fight or flight, primitive human being notion. I love what you’re saying. I guess from my perspective as a person of faith, there’s different tools to do I think what you’re talking about. When I’ve gone through some different crucibles, for me prayer, spiritual meditation. For me, maybe it might be reading scriptures. Is there a thought that for me… Some spiritual thought that some wise person perhaps up there is trying to tell me.

Warwick F:
Obviously, there are different ways of doing it. For people of faith that might be one language, but it can be others whether it’s meditation, yoga. There are different ways of trying to understand, what’s going on. What am I feeling physically? Emotionally?

Warwick F:
For me, if I feel depressed, frustrated, I have to… Why am I feeling this? I’m a reflective person by nature. That’s just like breathing to me. I always think, “Why am I frustrated? What’s the issue?” And then I’ll try, I don’t know, maybe deal with it’s the wrong way, but at least name it, recognize it.

Sarah N:
Yes. That’s a tremendous tool, is cultivating that emotional intelligence and articulation so that you understand what’s actually happening, because so often our language around crucibles is very rudimentary. “I’m sad. I’m grieving. I’m angry.” We don’t go beyond that.

Sarah N:
Another tool, and I want to come back to something you said in a minute, but another tool that I teach people is intentional language use, being very intentional about what they say and how they say it. Because when you say, “I’m aware that I’m sad right now,” it has a completely different energy and meaning experience in your physical body than “I’m sad.”

Sarah N:
There’s this permanence when we say, “I’m sad.” “I’m sad and I will be sad forever.” But, “I’m aware that I’m sad right now” helps you get curious about, “Why am I sad right now? Let me name all the reasons. And then what might I be able to do to either express that more completely or to support the sadness so that it can move through.”

Sarah N:
But the thing I wanted to come back around to is when you offered up being a man of faith, I think that spirituality has many directions and flavors and labels and options. I think that prayer and meditation are accessible to everyone. I think what’s the best way that I heard it described was that prayer is speaking and meditation is listening. I think we innately do both when we’re either in meditation or in prayer. I think naturally both happened.

Warwick F:
It’s so important to deal with these things. Everybody’s different. But for me, if I get really anxious or something weighs on me, it affects my stomach which it does for many people. And I start getting more sensitive to tomatoes or acidy foods. There’re certain foods that if your stomach is out of whack, you stay away from. But other people maybe headaches or some, I don’t know, but for me, it’s the stomach.

Warwick F:
If you don’t deal with this stuff, not only will affect you emotionally, it will affect you, as you say, physiologically. There are more and more science is understanding there’s a direct relationship between the emotions and the physiology.

Sarah N:
Yeah. There’s a very good reason.

Gary S:
I want to hop back a few seconds to what you said, Sarah, about the importance of language. I’m a word guy. I’m an old journalist. I’m a PR guy now and as I was reading through your materials, I love the fact that you called your coaching business Beyond Surviving. I love the fact that you have a quote on that website that says, “Let’s interrupt the pain and shake up the pattern so you can move beyond surviving. It’s time to enjoy the ride.”

Gary S:
I did a very quick search before we hopped on this interview because Warwick loves history and he loves historical perspective on subjects like we’re talking about. I went back farther than you usually go, Warwick, and that was Aristotle. This is something Aristotle said about this very subject about moving beyond surviving. This is what Aristotle said. “The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.” In your estimation and your experience, Sarah, why is survival not enough? Why should that not be where we point our compass, our GPS?

Sarah N:
Wow. First, thank you for that quote. What a beautiful contribution.

Sarah N:
I think anyone who is feeling unfulfilled, feeling alone, feeling unhappy, feeling hopeless, “depressed” is the word we’d like to use in modern America.

Sarah N:
I think any of us who describe our life that way are in survival mode. What’s so tragic to me is that we’ve been taught to settle for that and believe that that’s the best we can hope for, that life is hard, and some people get lucky, but most of us just suffer and struggle. Life is hard. So few of us understand how self-empowered we are, how many resources we have all around us, how much life is a proactive participatory experience rather than one that’s only in receiving mode.

Sarah N:
I think we are wired for survival, of course, so that is the default when stuff gets hard, but we’ve also been taught and programmed and modeled that that’s the best you can hope for.

Sarah N:
What’s really important for me and I’m so grateful for your work, Warwick, and others like us who are preaching this gospel of there is more than the thing that happened to you. Jung said, “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I wish to become or what I choose to become.”

Sarah N:
I think it’s so often that we, in America, in the modern day, are so quick to still completely identify with our hardships rather than identifying those as one moment in the time of our life.

Sarah N:
I do this exercise with my clients pretty early on. I asked them to create a timeline of their life and I remind them that when you were seven, your crucible moment was the wrecking of your bike and the bloody knee that you had and that is such a blip in your past now, but it was a defining moment that you can remember. You can totally go back to in your mind’s eye and feel in real time what that was like for you.

Sarah N:
I teach people to see that this is not the ending of your story. It’s one chapter in this broader context of what’s possible and when you have a crucible… I call it a catalyst moment, when you have a crucible experience, it wakes you up to your life and the ownership of your life and the value of your life in a way that you didn’t have consciousness around before.

Sarah N:
We take it for granted. We’d sleep walk through life. Our job is to get a retirement plan and a picket fence and a couple of kids and the right car and we should be happy and we are not taught to gauge our life by the fulfillment that we experienced or even how to get fulfillment beyond the external and the material.

Sarah N:
These crucible moments are a gift and I don’t mean to dismiss or minimize anyone’s suffering because no one deserves to suffer and yet time and again, it is those individuals who experienced some kind of hardship that activates or awakens them to the richness of life in a way that they will never take it for granted again. They deepen into their relationships. They deepen into their ownership of their life. They create something meaningful.

Sarah N:
I know that without this experience, my life would have never taken the trajectory that it did to the place where I’m incredibly enriched and fulfilled and joy filled and inspired excessively actually because of what happened to me and because I understand how much of a treasure it is.

Warwick F:
Talk about how that tragedy you went through was a catalyst just to take you on a whole, maybe mission’s the wrong word, but a whole new mission. Talk a bit about that because it sounds like it was a defining moment in an obvious way, but yet in a way that’s not so obvious. Talk about how that launched you into a new whole direction which is fulfilling and, is it wrong to say in some sense, gives you joy, what you did.

Sarah N:
No, please. I am absolutely joy filled with my life and my work and that’s where the challenge is honestly is that people still want me to be in the widow box. For me to say, “I’m joy filled and I’m in love and my life is beautiful,” is confusing because people cannot conceptualize how that could be possible.

Warwick F:
You feel some people might say, which would be very cruel to say to really honor the memory of your husband, you shouldn’t be happy. I don’t think anybody would say that but you think they’re thinking that?

Sarah N:
I don’t think they would say it out loud but I am certain people think that maybe you just didn’t love your husband that much if you could get on with the show so easily. That is something that I think we grapple with within these catalyst moments is what does it mean about me if I’m not devastated for the rest of my life by this and there’s a lot of clients who come to me who are afraid to let go of their grief because the grief is the thing that feels like love now. I can’t see them, I can’t touch them but I…

Warwick F:
The obvious thing is if it were possible to speak to your husband in some strange metaphysical sense, he wouldn’t say, “No, I want you to grieve and be sad the rest of your life.” He would say what you would have said, if heaven forbid, your role’s were reversed. You’d say, “I want you to get on with your life. Don’t forget me. But get on with your life and live a happy and joyful life.” He would say that. I’m sure, there’s no doubt. And you would have said that to him if the role… How is that dishonoring his memory? I know this is obvious, but as you say, people put you in a box.

Sarah N:
It’s the demonstration of how small I think the concept of love is within our humanity. People are like, “How could I ever love anyone again?” I say, “I have four children and I don’t only love my first son, I actually love them all quite equally, perhaps even more expansively, because there are four.”

Sarah N:
I think we’re so much more capable of fast love and deep intimacy and connection and joy than we realized because we’re sold this story of find your soul mate and live happily ever after and they’ll complete you and everything will be grand. Really tearing down the wallpaper of that belief system that the American Dream seems to be built upon and getting real with the fact that there’s no person who can complete you or make you feel loved unless you are deeply connected to and in love with yourself. You’ll never really actually experience intimacy or connection or fulfillment no matter how great you think your marriage is.

Warwick F:
I’m not in marriage ministry, so to speak, but that’s what you hear people say is if you feel like your husband or wife is the one who’s going to complete you, you’re here in trouble. You basically got to be happy with who you are, not seek fulfillment from some other person, or… Talk a bit about more what you do and just how you try and come alongside other people. I love that phrase, leaning into the pain and very countercultural. Obviously, I’m sure you’re not against counseling, but it’s counseling and, right? Talk about some of the and, so to speak, that you do to help other people go into the grief.

Sarah N:
I’m going to answer this by also answering the question I didn’t answer yet which is how did you get here. I did what I was supposed to do which was go to all the resources that were thrown at me to solve the problem that I had.

Sarah N:
I very quickly realized that many of these people didn’t actually believe in my healing either. They also saw me as a permanently wounded project that would need therapy for life and would always have this deep rift of emotional baggage dragging behind me. I found myself doing a lot of BS’ing with my therapists. “I know what to say right now because I am a type A overachiever. The right answer when you ask me that question is, ‘I’m doing just fine.” I never really got to this place of vulnerability nor did they ask me to go there. They couldn’t guide me there because I don’t think that was a part of their service.

Sarah N:
I had to go off grid and search for resources that could see me as a human and could really challenge me to become more curious about what my actual experience was rather than projecting onto me what they thought it would be and what I think what they thought I should be doing.

Sarah N:
What I found there was really useful but I had to look quite hard for it. It wasn’t packaged as the normal mainstream. “Here’s what you do when you’re grieving.” I decided that I would create it because one day I did come to a moment in my life where I looked up and around and thought, “Geez, I’m really happy.” This is the thing that nobody told me was possible, let alone real, and here I am.

Sarah N:
I guess it’s my job to let other people know this is a thing we can do just in case they’re also buying the line that the best we can hope for us is surviving.

Warwick F:
And it’s okay to be happy. You don’t have to apologize no matter what the tragedy is. It’s okay. Give yourself permission. It’s okay to be happy. Don’t feel guilty. Because I’m sure you had people saying, “I feel so bad. I’m happy.”

Sarah N:
Absolutely. I think that’s a general theme anywhere you go if someone experienced this pain and then finds themselves happy, they feel it’s confusing. It’s disconcerting. How could I be? How dare I?

Sarah N:
Essentially, what I’ve done is create this coaching program that’s built up on community and mind body resourcing and teaching people tools and language and the ability to self-reflect rather than deflect and dissociate. I started out working primarily with widows and it was really and continues to be really powerful and exciting and to watch them evolve beyond navigating their widowhood to navigating their lives in a broader context beyond that label.

Sarah N:
They can now see themselves as human beings, not widows, and it’s exciting because then we get to do the fun stuff of finding out who am I without that identity. I don’t have to leave behind what happened. I don’t have to forget to heal. I can always have that love story as a part of me and looking forward, what do I desire to create? What do I desire to experience?

Sarah N:
We don’t get there overnight. Of course, there’s a lot of terrain to cover but that is ultimately where we head is getting to the place where the pain feels like a part of the story that they’re very familiar with rather than one they’re grappling with.

Sarah N:
After a while, I noticed there were a ton of threads that were coming through because I was also working here and there with people whose father had passed or their brother had died or their friend had died. I just noticed that it wasn’t any different than working with the widows. The language was slightly different but the same fears and concerns and lack of ability to express what they were feeling and didn’t know how to. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do… It was all the same.

Sarah N:
This has evolved with time looking at the psychosomatic experience of navigating a painful life experience and what is missing in the culture that we operate in, filling that in with tools and self-resourcing and the ability to turn to ourselves with curiosity and notice what we’re experiencing so we can be honest about that and make choices and express ourselves in new ways to find our way to the truth of who we are rather than staying in that box, whatever the box might be.

Gary S:
Sorry, this is a good time for us to do a couple things. One, it’s about time to shelve the book back on the shelf, but the other thing, Sarah, I would be remiss if after you explained all of that, I did not give you the chance to let listeners know how can they find out more about what you do and get in touch with you.

Sarah N:
Thank you for that. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and also have a website. My name is Sarah Nannen. It’s lots of letters so I’m hoping you have show notes somewhere. But if you look for me on the Facebook or the Instagram or connect with me at sarahnannen.com, S-A-R-A-H-N-A-N-N-E-N dot com. Write that down for them so they don’t have to remember.

Gary S:
Yeah, I will. And you got nothing on Schneeberger for long letters in your name. But I digress. Warwick, I’ll give you the last question.

Warwick F:
Thank you so much, Sarah. I love what you do. I just have this image in my mind I think of that whole scarlet letter thing from Salem, Massachusetts. It’s almost like for some widows they feel like they have the big W on their forehead. It’s OK to can have it somewhere, it doesn’t have to be that big. It doesn’t have to… You are more than your tragedy. A tragedy doesn’t define you.

Warwick F:
I remember in the ’90s. I wasn’t, and as listeners know, I wasn’t in particularly good shape and there were some well meaning people that said, “Gosh, after that tragedy that Warwick went through and losing all that family business, and he’s pretty bad shape. He’ll probably never amount to more than that. He will always be just a pile of broken pieces.” Now, they wouldn’t say that to my face. But I felt that. I probably resented it a bit at the time, but it’s like, to me, you want to get in touch with what you’ve been through.

Warwick F:
But to me as I’ve been on a couple of church board and a school board and now with crucible leadership, there’s a healing balm, healing element as you’re focused on using your pain to help others. It doesn’t mean it totally goes away. There’s always a scar, but the combination of just understanding who you are, dealing with that, being real with that, I love that phrase, leaning into the pain, but then finding a purpose for your life and in our language a life of significance.

Warwick F:
That’s also part of not being defined by your tragedy. You’re more than just that day in Japan when those two marines, whoever it was came down that your front walkway. You’re more than that in that hour, that day, that minute, and everybody is.

Warwick F:
I love what you do and thank you so much. It’s a great mission, ministry and obviously, it gives your life meaning, purpose, and joy, and wholeness. You now can probably say you’re a whole… You’re not a disassociated person. You’re a whole person, right?

Sarah N:
I strive to be.

Warwick F:
Mind, body, spirit. That’s the goal, right? Be a whole person with a mission to help others which you have. I think you can really help a lot of other people and you have and it’s a message people really need to hear. Thank you so much.

Sarah N:
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Gary S:
This is when I know it’s been a great show when I have… And I’m going to show it to our YouTube viewers, when I take notes about here are some takeaways you can have for the show and then Warwick steals a couple of them when he summarizes his statement. I normally have three takeaways. I’m only going to have two today.

Gary S:
Warwick took number one which is don’t stay in the box. You don’t have to stay in the box. That’s number one. The way I phrased it was, we hear all the time that you’re never too old to move beyond your crucible. I think what Sarah has proven and what Warwick has proven in his own stories, it’s also true that we’re never too young to move beyond our crucible, that we are not frozen in time, even if we’re young, that’s not our destiny forever and Warwick just unpacked that a little bit and Sarah talked about it much in our conversation.

Gary S:
Another thing that Sarah really made clear in our conversation, listeners, is do not fake it until you make it. Healing is a proactive experience that requires intention and support, projecting everything’s okay while everything isn’t okay can deepen and actually worsen the pain of your crucible. Even though it may appear to those people who are onlookers that you’re winning, you really aren’t. You’re only surviving and survival isn’t healing. Do not be an actor in your own life. Be a character in your own life.

Gary S:
And then the third point, I think, that we can walk away with from this really meaningful conversation is never settle but strive. Life is hard but it’s also, as Sarah put it, a proactive, participatory experience. There’s more than the bad thing that happened to you and you can move beyond that bad thing that happened to you and you can grab a good thing that’s waiting for you. That is what we hope to point you to each week on Beyond the Crucible.

Gary S:
Until we are together the next time, listener. Thank you for joining us. Remember that your crucible experiences are indeed painful. They can knock you off balance. They can change as they did for Warwick and Sarah the trajectory of your life, but they are not the end of your story. In fact, if you lean into the pain, as Sarah says, if you learn from those experiences as Warwick has talked about, they can be the start of a new story, a new chapter in your life that can become the most joyous and most rewarding because it leads you to a life of significance.

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