There are two times of the year when we say goodbye to graduating seniors – at the end of fall semester and the end of spring semester. In May, there is a big celebration and seniors “go out in style”… but for those students who complete their requirements for college in the middle of the winter, it sometimes feels a bit awkward. Nevertheless, these are both times of big change. Leaving college is a big deal – right up there with going to college, getting married, having children, changing jobs or careers, retirement – you know, the big changes. Transitions.
Around graduation time, I share this essay with seniors on the process of transitions. I also get to thinking about the last day of my own college career. I took a final exam in the morning, packed my car to drive home and was working at my first post-college job that same night. Pumping gasoline (39 cents a gallon) at a Mobil station a half-mile from the house I grew up in. Not much progress yet. By the next week I had a job cleaning bathrooms at a local synagogue. Not much prestige yet. But I was making money, which I needed because I was to be married within a few months and then off to graduate school. My memory of that last day in college was all about “so what’s next?” I didn’t attend the graduation ceremony – in fact I hadn’t attended any graduation ceremonies since high school. You see like most people, I find that I’m not good at endings.
So I want to share a few thoughts on endings, beginnings and particularly that confusing time in between called “the transition zone.”
You would think that humans would be good at managing change. We see so much of it in our daily lives. There are revolutionary changes occurring in our society, our institutions, and among individuals that seem to come at us faster and faster. Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason makes the case that “change is not what it used to be.” In the past, trends could be analyzed and future directions could be predicted. This allowed for continuous, evolutionary transitions. Today we are faced with mostly unpredictable, discontinuous, and almost revolutionary change.
While some people see this period of rapid global transformation as an opportunity, for others it is a time of painful and reluctant adjustment to a seemingly confusing and chaotic world. In fact, when faced with the possibility of change most people choose the more familiar, the status quo. Perhaps this is due to fear of the unknown, fear of losing power, status, control, or possessions. Letting go is frightening: like jumping into a void. Henry David Thoreau seemed to be recommending the life of a change seeker when he wrote in his journal on March 11, 1859; “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and the leap in the dark to our success.”
Graduating college can surely feel like a “leap into the dark” even when you know where you are headed tomorrow – a new job, an old job, a vacation, or the uncertainty of heading home to figure out what’s next. I’ve spoken with graduating seniors over the past few weeks as I’ve read their senior summaries and I know that leaving this familiar place is satisfying, exciting, sad and a bit frightening. Like a leap into the dark.
So I wanted to give you a few thoughts on the process of transitions to help you think about how you are managing this transition out of college. This will not be the last transition of your life, so you might as well learn how to do it well.
William Bridges book, Transitions, reminds us that all new stages of life actually begin with endings. Letting go of the familiar is the beginning of beginning and requires two things; ceremony and grieving. Today’s ceremony is an important step in acknowledging that something significant is over. Not everyone graduating from BDIC is here today. Too bad. Ceremony is needed whether you loved it here at UMass or hated every day. It is over. Saying good-bye is an important part of the process of letting go. In some of my classes, we sit in a circle on the last day of class and students are invited to say a few words to the group and than conclude with the words “good bye.”
I find that we are not good at endings. We are a future focused society always looking forward and moving on to the next thing. When taken to the extreme, this “treadmill existence” can become quite pathological. Some of us leave destruction in our wake – broken relationships, unfinished work or learning. You may recognize this trait in friends – or perhaps yourself.
So the first gift I’ll share is the knowledge that endings are important. And saying the words “good-bye” is an important part of the process of moving on. We do this on the last day of class to mark the ending.
The second gift I’ll share is the knowledge that there is a little-discussed period of time between endings and new beginnings called the transition zone. It is a period of time that may be no more than a weekend or may take years, in which you may feel lost, empty and frightened. This is good. You see the transition zone is a real thing. To avoid it, or to not notice that it is happening isn’t healthy.
Our culture doesn’t generally value or appreciate the “in-between” times. Earlier cultures developed rites and rituals to mark these periods. We just don’t know how to deal with the feeling of emptiness that is quite normal during these periods. We are somehow embarrassed about not being “productive” and we don’t know what to call ourselves at these times. You are no longer a college student but you may not yet be a doctor, lawyer, artist, account executive, farmer, teacher or whatever.
During the transition time, nothing feels solid. Many graduating seniors spend the summer or part of the next year living at home. Yet that doesn’t feel quite right. Both of my older sons took this route for convenience and economy. It is a normal part of the transition time, yet both reported feeling like they didn’t quite belong. Bridges suggests that we learn to value this transition period as a time that can give us a unique view on our personal growth. He offers several suggestions for activities that you might consider to help you appreciate this special time.
The first suggestion is to find a regular time and place to be alone. This doesn’t mean laying in bed all day, but rather trying something that you might not ordinarily do. Some people get up early and read, meditate, walk, or just enjoy a cup of coffee in the presence of the early morning birds. The point is to be as completely unproductive as possible and just notice how it feels. For me, I do some spiritual readings every morning and in the summer I try to spend a few minutes in my garden just noticing the plants. This is a practice I developed during my most recent transition experience a few years ago.
The second recommendation is to keep a journal or perhaps to write an autobiography of your life. The journal should be used to record feelings not to make “to do” lists. The paradox of this recommendation of course is that this might be a time when “nothing is happening.” If so, write how you feel about that. The practice of journaling was one I began during a period of rapid change. I now have dozens of personal journals recording what I was thinking and feeling at various stages of life.
The third recommendation is to ponder the question “what would be unlived in your life if it ended today?” What is it about you that feels to be core to how you think of yourself, that others don’t know about or you haven’t done yet. For me, I spent much of my life thinking of myself as a sailor – but I didn’t sail much. I was always too busy doing the next productive thing in my career or family life. Today I own a sailboat where I will spend most of the month of June – with family on weekends but during the week, mostly alone.
Bridges recommends that you spend time completely alone in a totally new environment where nobody knows you. This may be the modern day version of a Native American vision quest. It may be a week or weekend on the Cape or in the mountains. Don’t bring a book to read, a radio or boombox. No outside stimulation to distract you from just being you. This is more difficult than it sounds. This is a journey into emptiness. Find a place to walk and notice nature. Pay attention to details. Journal about your feelings and thoughts. And don’t worry about being productive. Just be. If it appeals to you stay awake one entire night with the only activity keeping a fire going or counting the stars, try it. And don’t tell anyone what you are doing to avoid the questions and odd looks you will get.
If it feels right, plan your own symbolic acts of emptiness. One person may sit outside, draw a circle around them self in the dust, and just sit. Another may write a list of all the things they wanted to accomplish in the past year and burn it. Another may talk to the moon and still another may carve a walking stick. Find a ritual that works for you
This transition will surely not be your last, so it might be useful to practice living in the transition zone before it gets too complicated. There is more acceptance of “doing nothing” right after college than there is in midlife. Since over 70% of UMass graduates report that they do not have employment in their area of study immediately after college, if you don’t yet have a career – well, you’re not alone. Good. Enjoy it. When your parent’s friends ask you the inevitable question, “so what are your plans?” You can respond that your immediate plan is to actively experience the emptiness of the transition zone. That will usually end the questioning.
You might even be able to teach your parents about this important work. They have all experienced a transition and if they are like me, well, they may not be terribly comfortable with it all.
And so the final stage of transition is new beginnings. We generally celebrate beginnings as a time of opportunity. But we also recognize it as a time of uncertainty. It is like the first step of a trapeze artist onto a high wire crossing Niagara Falls. The first step is the most difficult and requires letting go of both the patterns of the past and expectations for the future. Remember the scene in the Disney flick “Finding Nemo’ when Dory and Marlin (Nemo’s dad – the clown fish) are inside the belly of the whale trying not to get sucked down the vortex of water that seems to lead to death? Dory tells Marlin to “let go.” Marlin struggles to hang on, not knowing what the future will bring. When Marlin finally lets go, they get shot up through the whale’s spout and find themselves in Sydney Harbor – exactly where they wanted to be. Life is sometimes like that!
John M. Gerber