At various points in my life, I have scented something in the wind around me and decided to follow my nose even when other people thought it was crazy to head toward what attracted me. It works for me, as they say. The feeling is sometimes like being caught up in an ocean wave. If you keep walking as if you’re on dry land, eventually you’re going to sink. However, if you realize you’re in the ocean, you can start swimming and not only float but benefit from the wave and all the ocean has to offer. It’s important to know when you’re in the ocean.
Perhaps we all, certainly most of us, start out believing we are immortal and can walk on water. While we would not likely, after our age ascends into the double digits, admit this worldview if asked, we belie our beliefs by how we live. Slowly, the scales fall from our eyes. The first truly difficult transitions occur: a death of someone close to us, the loss of a love we were sure was forever, expulsion from a company that promised to treat as family or at least a valued asset, the hard realities of aging which set in at different ages for different people and professions. It’s easy to think these big things won’t happen to us, that WE, somehow, will escape them.
This is true even for people who work in the change management field and have created theories of how people encounter and experience change. It was true for William Bridges after the death of his wife even after he had spent an entire career consulting with others about how to navigate change. His The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments is a poignant read on the topic. It was extremely useful to me when I went through a transition I had no map for nearly twenty years ago, so recently I loaned it to a colleague going through his own unexpected transition.
Twenty years down the road there have been many transitions: Two major recessions, the establishment of heighten security—and fear—on all levels in the supposedly free society I live in, certain unexpected betrayals, and new understandings of the human experience that have changed how I orient toward myself and others.
Now, when I smell that salty air, and it usually drifts in a whiff at a time here and there, I know transition is coming again. I know I can’t know what is on the other side, and I’m unlikely to be able to stop it. Eventually, I say to myself “Damn it. I don’t know when the first big wave of this one is coming, but it’s soon. Here we go!” And I hope the water won’t be too cold or the weather too rough and that I’ll have the strength to swim well, with grace and at least a little dignity.
In transition, it seems that there is always a moment when grace and dignity are beside the point. Usually, that’s when the storm is at its worth, and you realize there really is no boat coming: you have to swim your way out. And, you wonder if you can. Tread water if you have to, and then keep swimming.
Eventually, we all go through a final transition. Some people think they know what’s on the other side of that one. I guess I’ll see when I get there. But, based on seeing my grandmother through a good death, I know death has all the hallmarks of transition. Maybe that’s what makes the big transitions so hard. We think we’ll die. And while, poetically, that’s true, we do, the fact is that generally transition is not that easy. We don’t get off the hook. We have to keep on living, keep on swimming until we get to set our feet back on dry land again for a bit.
Perhaps the best approach is to get good at swimming. Good parents, for instance, have to be such good swimmers as their life transitions interact with those of their children. For all of us these days change—and the resulting transition—is all around us. I’m so glad I’ve learned to love the water.