Navigating those Big Transitions in Life

Phyllooks2Everything looks the same – and nothing feels the same.  My wife has died.  The center of our family has been ripped out leaving the rest of us to hold onto each other, still alive –  but without our heart.  Nothing makes much sense in my world without Phyl.  The searing pain appears unexpected from time to time, and then fades back into a dull ache.  And the worst part is that the world seems to look sort of normal.  But nothing feels normal.  Nothing feels right.  Everything has changed…

We all experience big and often sudden changes in life, like going to college, getting married, having children, children leaving home, changing jobs, retirement, or the death of someone we love.  These big changes in life, we call transitions.  The following is what I wrote about transitions when my family moved from Illinois to Massachusetts in 1992.  It all seemed much easier then, but I think there is still something to learn from this essay today.

John M. Gerber
July 4, 2020


Navigating Life’s Transitions

Today there are revolutionary changes occurring in our society, our institutions, and for individuals that seem to come at us faster and faster.  Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason makes the case that “change is just 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’s world, on the other hand, is experiencing unpredictable, discontinuous, and revolutionary change.

While some people see this current 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.  When faced with the possibility of change, most people choose the familiar – the status quo – perhaps due to fear of the unknown.

Letting go is frightening – its 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 then leap in the dark to our success.”

William Bridge’s book, Transitions, reminds us that all new stages of life begin with an ending.  Letting go of the familiar is the beginning of beginning and requires two things; ceremony and grieving.  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 be pathological.  Some of us leave destruction in our wake – broken relationships, incomplete work or unfinished learning.  You may recognize this trait in friends – or perhaps yourself.

The first gift I’ll share with you is the knowledge that endings are important.  And saying the words “goodbye” is an important part of the process of moving on.  It is not an ending if you leave a situation with a “see you later.”  Use the words “good-bye” when you leave your friends at school, a job or a relationship.   Try it.

The Neutral Zone

The second gift I’ll give you is the knowledge that there is a little-discussed period of time in between endings and new beginnings called the neutral 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.  The neutral zone is a real thing.  To avoid it, or to not notice that it is happening isn’t healthy.

To manage this transition period, Bridges suggests you find a regular time and place to be alone.  This doesn’t mean lying around in bed all day, but rather trying something that you might not ordinarily do – by yourself.  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.

The next 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 the neutral zone might be a time when “nothing is happening.”  If so, write how you feel about that.

The final 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.

Bridges recommends that you spend time alone in a  new environment where nobody knows you.  This may be the modern day version of a Native American vision quest.  Don’t bring a book, a radio or CD player.  No outside stimulation to distract you from just being you.   Pay attention to details.  Journal about your feelings and thoughts.  Don’t worry about being productive.  Just be.  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.

If it feels right, plan your own symbolic acts of emptiness.  You might simply sit outside, draw a circle around yourself in the dust – and just sit.  You might write a list of all the things you wanted to accomplish in the past year  – and burn it.  You might talk to the moon or carve a walking stick.  Find a ritual that works for you.

New BeginningsLetting Go

The last stage of transition is a new beginning.  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 a trapeze artist makes 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 movie “Finding Nemo’ when Dory and Marlin (Nemo’s dad – the clown fish) are inside the belly of a whale  – trying not to get sucked down the vortex of water that seems to lead to death?  Dory tells Marlin “its time to let go.”  Marlin struggles to hang on – afraid. When they finally can’t hold on any longer and let go, they both get sucked down into the belly of the whale  – and then shot right up through the whale’s spout  – to find themselves exactly where they wanted to be on their quest to find Nemo!  Sometimes life is just like that but you will never find out unless you let go!


This all still seems like a really good idea!  Its much harder in practice…..

June 28, 2020 – The First Two Weeks

August 15 – After Two Months

To read all of the chapters in Phyl’s three-year journey with ALS, see:

Phyl’s Story 

One thought on “Navigating those Big Transitions in Life”

  1. Thank you my dear friend! Your email came at such a time for me! Retiring two years ago I feel like I have been transitioning to what I don’t know. What wonderful suggestions to take time to ponder or not! Life does have many transitions and hopefully we learn and become stronger, or fail and then learn and become stronger! You and Phyl are in my thoughts!

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