A beginning is nothing without an ending. That’s my biggest takeaway so farm from William Bridges’s “Transitions”. The book, which was originally written in 1980 and was updated 2004
. (Thank goodness — some of the gender norms were more than a bit off).
If you have a teenager struggling through that awkward phase, if you know of someone about to get married or end a marriage, if you know of anyone going through those so-called “major life events”, give them this book. While I can’t say everything resonates, the things that do really strike a chord.
First of all, I have often misidentified transition as change. Change and transition aren’t the same, according to Bridges. Change is localized. You change your job. You change your house. You change your age. Sometimes these changes happen one at a time, sometimes they happen in quick succession or all at once, but changes aren't the same as the much larger, more holistic experience we go through in our lives — transition.
This book would have been really useful about four years ago, when I was leaving Washington, DC for the first time. The subsequent years have been spent catapulting back and forth across the country. I’ve done things I’ve never dreamed I would do, and very few things I actually set as life goals. I’ve become disenchanted with a lot of things, and I have been proven pleasantly wrong about quite a few others. For example, I never thought I could be happy doing a job outside of journalism. I was wrong about that. I thought I’d never be able to teach without a terminal degree. I was wrong about that. I thought I could never make any money without a professional degree. I was wrong about that. I thought I’d never be in a loving relationship. I was wrong about that. I thought my identity was directly tied to my occupation. I was very wrong about that.
The picture I held in my head as a child of the life I would lead as an adult has all but disintegrated, leaving me to wonder, what on Earth is coming next!? I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can’t possibly know. The best I can do is keep learning, take care of my health and embrace change.
That’s easy to say and gut-wrenchingly difficult to do. Humans crave certainty. Our minds work diligently to make signal of the noise around us, even if the signal is weak or a wildly ill-informed guess. No wonder the path to Buddhist enlightenment necessitates fully understanding and internalizing the very powerful idea that there is no such thing as the self — that “I” is nothing more than a fiction akin to the value of money. It’s the one thought I’ve found really lets me take a sledgehammer to the noice machine and give my mind a break from the hard work of making weak signals that are often wrong or, worse, damaging to my self-esteem.
The one concept that stands out to me in the book (at least so far, I still have to finish it), is the idea that endings are the real beginnings. We’re taught throughout life to believe that beginnings are the real markers of life changes. They’re not. Endings are.
Unfortunately, we're really bad at identifying endings, sitting with them and acknowledging them for what they are. Why sit with the pain of your relationship ending when you “should” be off on your search for the next relationship? But how can you really enjoy your beginning with the next person if you never acknowledge and fully metabolize the end of your previous relationship? The answer is: you can’t.
The same holds true for a new job, a new house, etc. I still haven’t made peace with the first big move my family made from the North to the South. I still carry the pain of that move with me to this day. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 years old. It was the first time I became aware of that fact that “home” can change, and I wasn’t in charge of when or how it did. It shocked my system completely. For years after the move, I would try to convince my parents that I needed to pack everything and the kitchen sink (in the form of my large, plastic toy cooking range and microwave) whenever we went on even the shortest road trips.
My child mind was terrified I wouldn't get to come back home.
I’ve had many of these transitions since, and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just swallowed the lump in my throat when I leave friends and family behind and marched through the ending to the beginning. I still pack as much as I can fit in my suitcase, thinking it was just an irrational tick. It’s actually an unacknowledged learning from a very important but also unacknowledged ending: You can come back home.
I’m now realizing that, in my eagerness to kick off new, exciting beginnings, I’ve left a trail of incomplete endings behind. My failure to clearly acknowledge them and tie them up is taking an emotional toll.
So, I am spending a bit of time this weekend tallying up all of my unacknowledged endings, everything from that childhood move to my teenage years to my time living and working in my favorite city, Washington, DC. I’m listing my endings and will do my own little ritual for me to acknowledge them and make peace. I’m not sure what that little ritual is yet, but I know it’s something I need to do in order to move into a the beginnings I’ve long been unable to fully embrace.
So, before you run towards that big, shiny beginning, ask yourself, “What’s ending for me, and what can I do to acknowledge that and capture the learnings from it?” Some people have strong religious traditions to lean on for these moments. Others don’t. Either way, don’t believe the hype about new beginnings, it’s endings that really matter.