While Arnold van Gennep introduced the term “rite of passage” to the West in 1960 through his book Rites of Passage, William Bridges brought the three-stage roadmap of transitions to mainstream culture with his book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, in 1980. If you’re interested about deepening your understanding of transitions, both books are must-reads. Today’s quotes come from Bridges’ more recent book, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments (2001), in which he chronicles his wife’s dying process and his own parallel transition. Here are a few of my favorite passages (but really the entire book should be read because nearly every page contains gems):
“After I began working with people in transition, I found that ending and losses are the commonest first sign that people are in transition. These endings tend to be signaled by one of several experiences:
* a sudden and unexpected event – like Mondi’s [his wife’s] death – destroys the old life that made you feel like yourself;
* the “drying up” of a situation or a relationship that once felt vital and alive;
* an activity that has always gone well before, suddenly and unexpectedly goes badly;
* a person or an organization that you always trusted proves untrustworthy and your whole sense of reality comes apart;
* an inexplicable or unforeseen problem crops up, at the worst possible moment, to disrupt the ordinary functioning of your life.
“The irony is that people naturally view such events or situations as disasters to be averted, as probelms to be solved, or as mistakes to be corrected. But since they are really signals that the transition process has commenced, making them go away is no more than turning off that alarm that woke you up.
“Whatever its details, an outer loss is best understood as a surrogate for some inner relinquishment that must be made, but one that is difficult to describe. What it is time to let go of is not so much the relationship or the job itself, but rather the hopes, fears, dreams, and beliefs that we’ve attached to them. If you only let go of the job or the relationship, you’ll just find another one and attach the same hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs to it. And, on the other hand, you may find that you can let go of those inner attitudes without actually terminating the outer situation.
“Since a loss is best seen as the cue that it is time to let go of the inner thing, one of the first things a person in transition needs to ask is:”What is it time for me to let go of?” The danger is that the person will fail to grasp the inner message and conclude that the outer change is the whole story. I myself had done that by believing that “moving to the country” and “finding my new career” were ends to themselves. Fortunately, my struggle took me long enough so that I had time to discover that what I had to let go of had far less to do with vocational activity and geography than with the programming that had carried me through the first forty years of my life.” (pp. 14-15)
“In the West, we associate development with learning and adding to what is already there – as I realized with my meeting of consultants during the winter after Mondi died. But there is an older (and, I believe, deeper) wisdom that tells us that it is by unlearning and stripping away what is there that we grow.
“We lack institutions which are based on a pedagogy and offer a curriculum of un-learning. The educational programs that are available emphasize learning, not unlearning. And the religious and therapeutic centers, where such things might happen, all have their dogma which the initiate is meant to learn. Where can we go to dis-identify with all that got us as far as we have gone in life?
“Yet life runs a perfect curriculum, and the tuition is modest. If you miss the offerings this year, you can catch them next year. Again and again, it offers us a correspondence course in letting go: Introductory Letting Go, Intermediate Letting Go and Advanced Letting Go. Life does so not because what we are identifying is bad, but because we are ready for something else, something further, something in some way deeper.
“The alternation of letting go of an old world and beginning a new one is the rhythmic pattern underlying life itself. The heart is nothing more than an organ that does that with our blood. Our lungs do the same thing with the air we breathe. The air does the same thing with blood – leaving it behind when we exhale and reentering it again when we inhale. The earth lets the fallen rain go back into the atmosphere and then reincorporates it after it falls again. The ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes that tells us that there is a time for living and dying is an affirmation of this basic alternating current of the universe that drives the blood and the breath and the weather, although we sometimes imagine that it is a precursor of modern relativism.” (pp. 80 – 81)