Remember that old Negro spiritual:

Oh, nobody knows the vicissitude I have seen,
Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the vicissitude I have seen,
Glory hallelujah!

Oh. You don't remember it that way, huh? Well, you're right. The song actually goes 'Nobody knows the trouble I have seen....'

But in my mind, all my life, the word 'vicissitude' has been equated with 'trouble'. Come to find out, though, the word actually refers to mutability, the quality or state of being changeable and can refer to either a favorable of unfavorable event or situation that occurs by chance.

It is only as a sub-section of the latter part of that definition that the word has come to mean, to quote Merriam-Webster, “a difficulty or hardship attendant on a way of life, a career, or a course of action and usually beyond one's control” - in a word, trouble.

I think part of the reason that vicissitude has meant trouble to me is because the word is almost onomatopoeic, that is, it sounds like what it means. Say it aloud: vi-cis-si-tude. You slide over all those sibilants and it seems like smooth going, then you slam up against that plosive 't' and never quite recover as you stumble over the rather rude sounding 'ude' on your way out.

That seems hauntingly evocative of all those times in our lives when everything seems to be going fine and then WHAM! we hit the brick wall.

I don't think I need to elaborate about those events – in fact, I can't because they are all different for each of us. But I'm sure you know what I mean. I'm sure you've had those experiences yourself.

In fact, the times we are in just seem to summon up that word 'vicissitude' because “the times, they are changing” and we're not always sure whether those changes are good or bad.

It was interesting to note, when I looked up the word online, that several other people had also looked up the word.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary always asks “What made you want to look up ____________. Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible). ” This is the first time I have seen any comments made in response to that question. The citations ranged from Mormons who had heard the word in a sermon to a review of a movie on the  AL-Jazerah English site; from (Washington) “Irving's Sketch Book” to the Three Stooges; from James Allen's “As a Man Thinketh” to Michael Pollan's“The Omnivore's Dilemma”; from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's “How to Handle Tough Times” to Jennifer Egan's “A Visit from the Goon Squad”; from Kahlil Gibran's “The Broken Wings” to  "Je suis née au harem" from Choga Regina Egbeme.

In other words, it would seem that many different people, with a variety of backgrounds and interests, have had recourse to the word 'vicissitude' of late. One gentleman may have spoken for all of us when he said, “I have heard the word my entire life, but never used it before. Now that I'm older, it seems to apply now more than ever.”

The question arises, in my mind, at least: are we concerning ourselves more with the vicissitudes of life of late because we are more troubled or merely because we have become more aware of change?

And is it the possibility of trouble that bothers us, or the inevitability of change?

After all, not all change is trouble and even change that starts out with trouble can eventually – according to the vicissitudes of life – be change for the good.

Perhaps, in the end, the vicissitudes of life – the ups and downs of life – are like electocardiograms. The spikes and depressions are normal and to be expected, even celebrated. It is when there are no vicissitudes – when we have flat-lined – that we are dead.

Author's Bio: 

I am a Baby Boomer myself and a newbie internet entrepreneur focusing on the Baby Boomer generation because I spent sixteen years serving as pastor in United Methodist congregations all over Kansas. Those congregations were made up primarily of Baby Boomer or older members, so I have developed some expertise with the Baby Boomer generation. I am now on leave of absence and living in Atchison, Ks. with my thirty-year-old son and two cats. I also help my daughter, also living in Atchison, with three sons, ages 9, 7, and 22 months, while their father is in Afghanistan. My blogs are found at