The Bigger Yes

PictureIn the months leading up to my high school graduation, my younger sister Sarah took to glaring at me across the room.   Sometimes, she’d even give me the silent treatment.   My mom told me, she’s angry at you – for graduating.

What?! Why?! Didn’t she know this was coming? Isn’t she happy for me, I was going to a great university, relatively near by, it was what we were supposed to do – right?

In his wonderful work on life transitions, William Bridges describes the three phases of any given life change.

1)       Endings,
2)       Neutrality (or what religious traditions would call – the wilderness) and
3)       Launching the New.

These stages happen – kind of like the stages of grief –  not in a precise order, but rather you go back and forth,  sometimes living in a little of all of them at once, but ultimately making your way across the spectrum, fully arriving in the last stage to launch the new.

But, first, as my sister understood, is “endings.”  I was slow to understand this myself.  It wasn’t until the next fall, as I was going to college, that I got it.  She and I had been best friends her whole life. I had lived with her, often sharing a bedroom, her whole life.  And, I wouldn’t anymore.

Bridges clarifies, this phase is not just about moving out, though – or some other physical literal ending. He says, “We have to let go of the prior thing before we can pick up the new – not just outwardly, but inwardly where we keep our connections to the people and places that act as definitions of who we are.”

Sarah got that it was not just that we’d no longer live in the same house. We’d no longer be the same people. We’d no longer have the same kind of relationship.

I mean – it was good.  It was what we were supposed to do. And also: it was terrible.

The terrible part of my new reality hit me a few months into the new year when I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness and disorientation.  Who were all these strange people?  They didn’t know me, they didn’t love me. And to make matters worse, I’d call home to check in, and my mom would report that Sarah was doing fine.  My mom happily shared how Sarah and Kristina – our younger sister – had grown closer after I’d left.

This is the cycle of life – endings make room for new beginnings.  Old ways fade to make room for a new creation.

The Rev. Jen Crow, the Associate at First Universalist in Minneapolis, recently told a story about a woman she knew whose greeting – rather than “hi” or “hello”-  was “if you’re not changing, you’re dying.” And after that, she might add: “Living things change.  Dead things don’t.”  If you’re not changing, you’re dying.

So how is it that something that’s required for life –  we could still be so bad at so often?
It’s kind of like breathing.  You die if you don’t do it.  And yet most of us need remedial lessons to keep us on track.   Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Let all the air in.  Let it all out.
Right? For change too.

Living things change. Dead things don’t.  So as instructions for this necessary life practice, let’s go back to Mark and Dee’s chalice lighting, and their rituals of transition.  Rituals help us process change, especially help us with those inner realities.  Somehow, walking across a stage, or moving a tassel, exchanging rings, or shaving our heads ceremonially – these act as a signal to our inner selves, and begin the slow and necessary work of inwardly letting go.

What transitions have you experienced this year? Did you allow yourselves these sorts of rituals? If not, why not gather a few of your friends together – and make yourself a ritual. It doesn’t need to be fancy or formal.   Light a candle.  Embrace a token, set a token down. Press your hands along beads. Sing.  Release.  Weep.  Wail if you have to.  Feel the witness of a wider circle of love.  Feel the spirit of life that holds you.  Feel the calling of that bigger yes burning inside you, calling you forward.

And as you do, perhaps you will feel yourself slip into that next stage – the neutral, or wilderness zone.   It’s the hardest phase to hang out in,  as it is necessarily unstable.  You are no longer your old self, but not yet new either.  It feels like waiting, absence, disorientation.  We often fail to give ourselves adequate time here – we rush to re-stabilize.  But it is in this neutral, interim place where we experience the renewal necessary to begin again. Discoveries and creativity abound. Learning, and integration. Healing, reconciliation, wholeness.

You’ll need friends to circle round for this phase, too. Friends, and maybe a good therapist.  At the least someone or someones who can “hear you into speech” as we say in our small groups.  Someone who will listen to you deeply enough that you can fully hear yourself.

After some time, and some bouncing around all these stages – eventually – most of the time, we arrive at the final stage of the transition, launching the new beginning.  It may look precisely as you imagined; or entirely different.  Letting yourself discover along the way, is living too.  Living things learn, too.

For all of the transitions we find ourselves in, for the endings they require, the wilderness we wander in, and the new beginnings we strive for –  let us walk together.  Bless the path.  And remind each other how to breathe.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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