The Chaotic Journey of Transition

A student graduates.

A prisoner completes her sentence.

A diagnosis of dementia.

The completion of a building project.

Having a baby.

Retiring.

Getting married.

Given three weeks to live.

Being let go at a job.

Starting a new job.

Losing an election.

Getting a divorce.

Returning from deployment overseas.

Facing an empty nest.

Winning an election.

Moving to a different place.

Transitions. We all have them. They are similar to being in no man’s land. We are neither here nor there. We are in this state of being in between. Since transitions are commonplace, we may assume we would know them well. But do we really? Yes, they are ubiquitous, but they are also characterized by unfamiliarity. They are the norm while being the un-normal.

While not commonly discussed, transitions contain losses that are grieved. That is, they involve endings, as William Bridges notes [see The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments, 5]. For some transitions, the losses are very apparent. This may be the case when we are forced to endure a transition against our will, such as the loss of a job or the ongoing loss of being unable to find employment. Other times we may have a job, but it is not our passion or our own calling, such as a minister who is working outside the pastorate.

But for some transitions the losses are more hidden in that they are associated with a celebration. A wedding. A new baby. A graduation. A job promotion. The celebration may shroud the complexity of grieving an ending while navigating new territory. We highlight the accomplishment, the success, or the joy of a new beginning but overlook the parallel experience of loss, grief, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity.

  • A pastoral friend in a church building project stated how he was very aware that many pastors resign following the completion of such a project.
  • A PhD colleague shared his story of being surprised when he slipped into a depression following the successful completion of his doctorate.
  • A person returns to her home country after living overseas for an extended period of time. While she is excited to see family and friends, she struggles with things being the same but not the same. The most innocent and simple task may be the most arduous to complete. I have heard several American workers who lived overseas speak of returning home and walking into a grocery store to buy cereal; however, they are overwhelmed by the abundance of choices and depart from the store in frustration and/or in tears.

Besides including an ending, transitions also have a nebulous quality about them. They are not concrete items we can hold in our hands for they are more psychological than physical. Since there is the absence of remains to bury, the boundaries of transitions may be murky, and their losses may be clouded to others. Transitions may be similar to a fog in which one is attempting to feel his way or a wilderness with no clear path to move to the other side.

Transitions may catch us unawares. Part of this may not only be related to their undefined nature, but it also may be related to our culture’s silence on the subject. Let us face it: it is not as if culture sends us flowers and says, “I am sorry for the difficulties of your transition.” Without culture’s normalization, we may be left to struggle through it alone. In short, we do not find an opportunity to mourn, which means we are unable to grieve publicly. This may lead to our own wondering, “Why am I having such difficulty?” and downplaying transitions’ impact by saying, “It is no big deal. Others go through these periods just fine.” If the transition is connected to a celebration, we may give ourselves a pep talk, “What do I have to be sad about? This is to be a time of rejoicing . . . opportunity . . . possibility!”

Yet, clues may begin to emerge that one is struggling to navigate a transition. The ill-defined transition may create tension in relationships as extra strain is placed on them. We may be more emotionally sensitive and become increasingly over reactive due to the ongoing uncertainty and unfamiliarity. We may be less patient. More easily angered. Sometimes the time of transition leads to fractured relationships that never heal.

  • A couple faces an empty nest or experiences retirement, and they find themselves on each other’s nerves as they attempt to live with each other in a new context.
  • A family learns their loved one has two weeks to live but two drags into four. The family members may be uncomfortable in stating they want it to be over; thus, nerves become frayed as the family finds itself in limbo as their lives are placed on hold while the world refuses to stop.
  • The soldier comes home after being deployed for twelve to eighteen months; however, nothing is like it was prior to deployment. Change has happened in the culture, in the family, and in the soldier.

Transitions like these may reveal certain expectations that are unmet. We are unprepared for this in between time. We want to move on with our lives. We may become frustrated as the transition becomes an imposition. An impediment to normalcy. An obstruction to fulfillment.

A transition may generate an existential experience. We may be less self-assured so we become more withdrawn to protect ourselves. Maybe our identity was closely tied to our employment or that project now completed; therefore, we now wonder, “Who am I?” Maybe we are ruled by a tyrannical conscience that takes this opportunity during this vulnerable period to inflict shame. Therefore, our minds hear a steady barrage of comparison leading to condemnation: “Others appear to navigate through these times just fine. You are doing something wrong. If you really wanted out of this, you would get out. You are not doing enough. You should have . . . You shouldn’t have . . .” We find ourselves crushed under the weight of the attack.

A transition’s uncertainty can wreak havoc with us. Without the familiarity that provides security, some transitions place us in a precarious situation due to our own vulnerability. The Israelites remind us of a transition’s risks, temptations if you will. In their transition between Egypt and the Promise land, the eating of the cuisine of Egypt as a slave began to be more appealing than eating manna in the desert (Numbers 11). This illustrates how our uncomfortableness with the present uncertainty produces our own longing for the familiarity of the past, even a very difficult and unwanted one.

I confess that in my desire to escape my own nebulous time, I have had some illogical ideas . . . some of them pretty drastic sounding . . . like completely withdrawing from society to some isolated place that leads to nowhere (ironically, I would be trading an unfamiliar, uncertain psychological space for an unknown, remote physical place). But such temptations reveal the frustration, anger, confusion, and a desire to remove myself from this ill-defined area to a place of clarity.

While transitions may be a time of temptation, they also hold the potential for powerful transformation. A transition is movement towards a new normal, a time of change. This means it is an opportunity for personal development, the embracing of a new understanding, and this takes time. Like other grief journeys, navigating through a transition is not something that can be sped up. It calls for perseverance and tenacity which leads to changes in character (Rom. 5:3-4). As a time of learning to embrace my own vulnerability, my own finiteness, and uncertainty, transitions become a time of trusting in God. Having recently completed a PhD, I am often asked, “So, what are you going to do now?” I admit that I am sensing pressure to go and do. However, in answer to the inquiries about my future, I have learned to say, “I am doing the next, right thing.” This in part involves being transformed, cultivating the fruit of the Spirit such as learning to be faithful even when I cannot see clearly.

Transitions are also an opportunity for the community of faith. As stated above, culture does not normalize or validate the difficulties of transition. Culture neglects to provide spaces to mourn, which refers to grieving publicly; therefore, this is an opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to step up and to be counter-cultural by offering that space.

Such an understanding may be drawn from Matthew’s writing of the beatitudes in 5:3-16 (I am indebted to Dr. Dave Parris for the following understanding of Matthew’s beatitudes). In the Gospel of Matthew the beatitudes contain a high element of grace in that they are a description of God’s care or traits of God’s reign. These particular traits (e.g. poor in spirit, meek, hungry/thirsty, mourning, etc.) were not highly valued in the Greco-Roman culture. If people were poor in spirit, mourning, hungry and thirsty, or meek, the average person in the Greco-Roman culture would believe that God was not blessing them, but rather they were experiencing God’s judgment or discipline. The beatitudes, then, are stating the opposite: rather than God judging, God is caring. Keeping in mind that Matthew is writing to a community of Christ-followers, the author is saying that the community who embodies these counter-cultural characteristics (e.g. poor in spirit, pure in heart, mourning, etc.) will be salt and light to the world (5:13-16). Pentecostal scholar Craig Keener confirms this when he notes that the beatitudes state “what kingdom-ready people” are to be, which includes being humble, peaceful, non-violent, broken, dependent on God, and seeking God over anything else [see A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 167-169].

In reflecting on this understanding while centering on our current topic of transitions/loss/grief, I am struck by its relevance to the contemporary community of faith in the area of mourning/comforting. While some may assert that mourning in the beatitudes refers to those who grieve over the wickedness they see, Keener argues that mourning may generally reference those “who are broken, who suffer or have sustained personal grief” [see A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 170]. Thus, persons under God’s rule are free to mourn, to grieve, or to lament, and in turn, they will find God’s care and comfort. That is, they will find a God who will come alongside in the midst of suffering, even the suffering of transition.

As people who seek to emulate God’s reign, I would like to take this one step farther. If God provides comfort for the mourning, is this not also to be a trait of our community of faith? As people who seek to embody the traits of God’s reign, it would seem that we would also be counter-cultural and provide a place for people to publically grieve, to mourn. When we do, we are offering comfort, entering into their suffering. We are mirroring God’s pastoral care to the broken and suffering. Hence, it is not only being humble, broken, pure in heart, etc. that are to be the traits that we are to embody, but I believe we also are to embody the traits of God’s care. That is, those who mourn will be comforted, not only by God alone, but also by God through the community of faith. Thus, rather than mirroring our culture who may ignore or poo-poo a person’s difficulties in transition with such unhelpful platitudes as, “Everyone goes through that,” or “When God closes a door, God opens a window,” the church may be counter-cultural by responding with the shepherd’s heart of God by entering into the pain through empathy, validating and normalizing the losses of a transition. Such empathy embraces humanity’s vulnerability by supplying a safe space during uncertainty and unfamiliarity and by offering comfort to those who lament in our presence.

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