Endings, Beginnings, and the Time In-Between

by Rev. Fred L Hammond 14 October 2012©


I saw a Peanuts cartoon posted on Facebook recently that fits today’s theme.  Linus says life is filled with good experiences or bad experiences.  A question is asked about what about the in-between experiences.  The last panel has Snoopy on top of his doghouse with the caption, In-between experiences are for napping.

But that is where most of our life is spent—in the in between.  There are new beginnings.  Some are very clearly marked as such; the first day at a new school, the first position in a desired career or the purchase of a new house in a new community.  These are all new beginnings.  And there are endings and some of those are clearly marked as well; graduation from high school, leaving a position, or the death of a friend or a partner.

These are all beginnings and endings of one sort or another. A popular song a few years ago Closing Time had a line that stated, Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end[i]. But what about the in-between time?  Are we waiting as if life was a train terminal and the trains coming through were life’s beginning and ending story lines?  Or are we napping like Snoopy, waiting for the next good or bad thing for us to be awake to experience?

Most of us are in the in-between time. Isn’t that the time that really matters?  Motivational speakers would sometimes use a poem to talk about the in-between time, entitled The Dash.  The dash is what is found on gravestones between the year of birth and the year of death.  The person’s story isn’t the year markers, the person’s life story is what happened within the dash–the in-between time.  That is the important time of a person’s life.

How did they do it-this dash between these two years?  What did they experience?  What did they accomplish?  Who did they love? What events shaped their character—their destiny?  Who were the ones left behind?  How did they cope?  The beginnings and endings, the highlights and lowlights of a person’s life, these are defining and significant to the person but these are only changes in the person’s life.

What did the person do to cope with these changes?  Part of the process has to do with how we transition into these changes.

Walter Bridges, author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, states that we confuse change and transition by thinking of them as interchangeable words.  They are not.   He writes, “Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job.  It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father.  It is the switch from the old health plan at work to the new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one or it is the acquisition that your company just made.  … Change is situational.  Transition, on the other hand, is psychological.”

How do we adjust to having a new child that prevents us from just picking up and going away for a weekend?  What needs to happen within us that allows us to incorporate / integrate that very specific change in our lives?  Bridges states, “Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of furniture.” And without a transition into that new relationship in our lives—such as a newborn, or rather without that inner re-orientation and self-redefinition to the new event that change won’t work.

Our society does not do a very good job in handling the transitions of our life story.  Other societies are much more adept at transitions.  They have created a process to aid in that adjustment of self in relationship to the change.  These societies have rituals or rites of passage to assist people to let go of the ending of one chapter in a person’s life and to find and begin a new one.  Anthropologist Michael Rudolph[ii] sees ritual as a transformative practice that seeks to reorganize identity through the ritual performance.

Our child dedications, bridging ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, and memorial services; all make attempts of doing this transformative work.  But sometimes they fail because we expect the process to be over with once the ceremony marks that ending or beginning. The truth is transitions take longer than the ceremonial marker. And some societies prepare for that transition process. For example, the Jewish ritual surrounding the death of a loved one includes sitting Shiva for seven days followed by reciting the Kaddish up to eleven months after the loss. The process of sitting Shiva and Kaddish done in this ritualistic manner helps reorganize the internal identity of the bereaved person and family.

Bridges suggests that all transitions have three components, 1) an ending; 2) a neutral zone; and 3) a new beginning.  It is that neutral zone that is oft times filled with confusion and distress. It is the time that Snoopy takes a nap and hopefully wakes up to the new beginning already fully in place. He says that many people who choose to make changes will deny the ending of things and those who are catapulted into a transition can not see the possibility of a new beginning.  Such is the uncomfortableness of that in-between time.

Having a new child in our lives, as exciting as that is, is also an ending of sorts.  There are new priorities that must take precedent in order to raise this new life in a loving and nurturing environment.  If the parent insists on continuing to party with their drinking pals or taking off for the weekend without placing the child’s needs into the equation then there will be barriers to raising that child. That in-between time includes the grieving and the re-adjustment of the understanding of independence and freedom within the realm of parenthood.  There is no shame in recognizing that grieving process and by doing so one will be able to facilitate re-integration of the new beginning of parenthood. But to deny that an adjustment or reorganization of identity is necessary is to invite additional duress and conflict into the relationship not only with others but also with oneself.

This grieving during the in-between time is part of the normal process of transitioning to the new beginning.  Whether it is the arrival of new children into our lives, a move to a new community, or retirement from a rewarding career, it is normal to experience loss.

When I first entered seminary, I thought I was beginning a new adventure. And I was but I was also still in the throes of ending my previous life.   Bridges says the ending experience includes five aspects that include disengagement, dismantling, dis-identification, disenchantment, and disorientation.

I was surprised by the sudden unsettled feeling I was experiencing.  I chose to leave a successful career as executive director of an agency that I co-founded. In deciding to go to seminary I had to disengage from the work that I did for 15 years. This meant no longer keeping tabs on what employees or the new executive director was doing with my agency. It was no longer the agency that I co-founded and ran; it was now the agency where I used to work.

But I wasn’t anticipating waking up one day in Chicago, thousands of miles from my home, with this creeping dread of ‘O my god, who am I?’ I wasn’t expecting this feeling of disorientation but here I was in a strange city, where I knew very few people and I felt bewildered by the shift back into being a student again.

I had all these experiences, all this expertise but they were suddenly irrelevant to my being a student in seminary.  I had to dis-identify myself from my past identity. In some ways it was as if I had no identity because student was a temporary state.  I was no longer in the role of an executive director. I was not yet in the role of a minister. I was in between identified roles. This identity no longer existed and so there was a process of dis-identification that had to occur in order for me to learn a new identity. The identity of me as minister.

In my hometown, I had become known as Mr. Interfaith AIDS Ministry so tightly was I identified with the work I did with HIV/AIDS.  People claimed to know me whom I never personally met. People sought my advice on non-profits, on HIV/AIDS education, and on issues affecting the gay community. But in Chicago, all of my knowledge and skills that I developed as a Chief Professional Officer of a non-profit were persona non grata.  The identity that was assigned me in my hometown needed to be dismantled in this new setting.   This transition back to student was very unsettling. I needed a nap.

Of course in hindsight it was all part of the process of becoming a minister but I did not know that at the time.  Being a minister is a process that is forever unfolding.  I was no longer identified as an executive director of a non-profit agency that identity had died but I was not yet a minister either. So I was in between two places. One does not simply wake up into their new role fully formed.

And even though a person could wake up one day and be identified as a parent, there is still a process and a transformation of identity from not being a parent to being a parent.  All that was before is now gone, and the new parent has to adjust to that new identity and grieve the passing of the old one.  They must or they may become resentful of the interruption that responsibility for children often brings into our lives, or resentful of the new job, or resentful of the move to a new community.  It is not simply a turning of the page in the chapter of our life but rather a process of letting go of the loss of that which was before and realigning to the new circumstances we find ourselves.

How we deal with the endings and beginnings in our lives might be a pattern established as far back as childhood.  When an ending is occurring, we might discover that we handle that ending in much the same way as we did other endings.  Bridges writes, “Leaving for a better job may, ironically enough, cause the same grief and confusion that occurred in the past when you reached the sad end of a core relationship.[iii]” He adds, “…some of the feelings you experience today have nothing to do with the present ending but are the product, instead, of the resonance set up between situations in your present and those in your past.”

Abraham-Hicks, new age motivational speaker, calls this a vibrational set point.  It is the rut in the dirt road of how we dealt with all transitional situations in the past, and so we naturally will fall into that response pattern just as easily as a car driving on dirt road will fall into the well developed rut.  Depending on how successful our past transitions were can be an indicator if that rut in the road serves us well or holds us back.  We need to sometimes re-grade the road so we can make a much smoother transition this time around.

To do this work, we need to be willing to examine our past transitional moments. Bridges suggests that we examine our lives and answer this question:  “A new chapter in my life opened when…?”  For some, he suggests these might be relational and for others it might be places or projects.  He also suggests that we look at the changes that have occurred in our past year and gives us some categories to aid in our thinking of these changes.  What were the changes in home life; personal changes; work and financial changes; and inner changes are some of the areas to look at. This examination of these areas of our lives might enable us to gain insights into how we have handled past transitions and help us make the shift that we need to make to handle our current transition.

We also are better able to handle those times when everything feels up in the air or falling apart if the transition has meaning and is moving towards a desired end.  If it is not seen as a part of a larger picture then it can be experienced as simply distressing.  This explains the phrases that we often hear from well meaning folks, like ‘it was God’s will’ or ‘God has a purpose that we cannot understand’ or ‘God only gives us what we can handle.’  While infuriating when heard, these are attempts to ameliorate the distress caused in our lives by attempting to place them in a larger framework.

And while we might not appreciate comments like this when we are in crisis, there is a truth in these statements that we might overlook.  Life on this planet has a rhythm that all life integrates into and experiences. That rhythm includes the pain and loss we experience when events happen in and around us that we cannot control.  Now I do not advocate the notion of a god somewhere that plays our lives as some pawn piece in a celestial game of chess—and therefore our lives have a meaning that we might not see from our linear point of view. But I am suggesting that life has a rhythm of ebbs and flows and we as creatures expressing life are a part of that natural rhythm.

Bridges use the seasonal analogy to explain this rhythm.  Here is the analogy offered by Chance the Gardener in the movie Being There[iv]:

President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
[Long pause]
Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President “Bobby”: In the garden.
Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
Chance the Gardener: Yes.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
Chance the Gardener: Hmm!
President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.

While we might not fall exactly into these seasons at the same time as others, there is a rhythm in our lives.  It is natural for us to experience these transitions and we should not expect that we will not have them, because we will all have them.  Bridges reminds us, “First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between.” So things are not exactly in the order that Chance the Gardener suggests, it is rather fall—the letting go of leaves, winter, and then the spring when green life emerges from the seemingly dead brown wood.

We see this pattern in the theology of the resurrection.  Jesus dies–an ending, three days of disorientation, letting go of false hopes and understandings, then resurrection, new life—a new beginning—a new way of living in the world.  See the resurrection story follows a process of transition that is common to all of us.  One does not need to believe in the literalness of this story to also see this story as a parable for going through transitions in life.

So imagine for a moment what the followers of Jesus might have experienced during this ending of Jesus’ ministry.  There was turmoil. They witnessed Jesus’ arrest and many of them scattered—some denied their connection to him, others hid in fear. Still others stood vigil at his death still trying to comprehend what and why this was all happening.  I imagine they questioned the amount of time they spent following this man. Was it all worth it? Was it just a waste of time? These are all reactions to the changes that were taking place in and around them. And then early in the morning a few women went to the grave site and something new began.

Now not all transitions in our lives are that dramatic.  Some transitions are subtle much closer to the transitioning seasons where we notice a slight crispness in the air and a tinge of yellow in the leaves.  And over time we realize that we are in transition. But should that fallow time between an ending and a beginning seem like a major upheaval, Bridges offers this insight.  “It’s important to recognize the reason for these feelings and to realize that they are natural.  Just because things are up in the air now and you sometimes feel as if you were right back where you started, this is not a sign that you have made a mistake or have been wasting your time for the past ten years. It is only a sign that you are in one of life’s natural and periodic times of readjustment and renewed commitment.”   Recognize that “… adulthood unfolds its promise in an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability.”

Life’s transitions, be they found in nature with the seasons, or under the sea with the tides, or in the daily living of our lives is a natural process of the universe which even the stars above follow this rhythm of expansion and contraction.  So may our transitions lead us to new and great beginnings… but in the In-between leave some room for a nap. Blessed Be.

[ii]  Michael Rudolph , Ritual Performances as Authenticating Practices: Cultural representations of Taiwan’s aborigines in times of political changes as found athttp://www.cefc.com.hk/pccpa.php?aid=2631

[iii] Walter Bridges, Transitions: Making sense of Life’s Changes


One Comment

  1. This is lovely. Thank you.

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