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Not in their goals but in their transitions are people great.
adapted from RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Why read a book about tough transitions? Aren't these rough patches as count-on-able as rain and as normal as crabgrass? What more needs to be offered than perhaps a gentle admonition to buck up and move on or, on a really difficult day, a steady hand of support? No one wants to give time to words that only belabor the obvious, even if those words do aim to be inspirational or encouraging.
This book is about something more than inspiration or encouragement (though I hope it's that, too). Its purpose is to distill the most current information available related to tough transitions-from science, philosophy, the arts, ancient spiritual thought, medical studies-and to show how individuals have used this information to navigate their way through some of life's most difficult times.
Tough transitions are inevitable. But the fact that they are inevitable does not mean that they have only to be suffered through with clenched teeth and fisted fingers. Information exists-if we can find it-and ways of thinking and behaving-if we can do them-that can give us a facility to navigate through tough times with more insight, understanding, and sense of direction. I've written this book to offer just such a possibility.
Your Transition Is Not My Transition
If we look back over our lives, each of us can make a long list of transitions we've experienced. Some of us can create a list just by calling out what we're in the middle of right now. Try putting a mark by the side of every situation listed here that you've dealt with or are experiencing now, and you'll see what I mean:
_____ changing careers by choice
_____ losing a job
_____ getting married
_____ dealing with illness (yours or someone close to you)
_____ experiencing an empty nest
_____ caring for elders
_____ taking a new job
_____ losing someone by death
_____ being divorced, separated, or left
_____ facing one's own aging
_____ experiencing failure
_____ dealing with financial loss
_____ having a baby
_____ looking for work
_____ having someone go to war or come home from war
_____ living in a country you weren't born in
_____ losing sense of security
_____ going to or coming from war
_____ having a new grandchild
_____ choosing a public alternative lifestyle
_____ losing a baby
_____ finding adoptive birth parents/child
_____ becoming a stay-at-home mom
_____ blending two families
As you look at your own list of transitions, you note that each is a different kind of challenge: this one hurt for years ... that one is a challenge but a bit exhilarating ... this one shook everything in my life ... that one brought at least as much joy as hard work ... this one makes me angry as a buzzing bee ... that one knocked the breath out of me. A short list of three or four transitions matched with the challenge or emotion or experience will illustrate this variety in intensity, pain, duration, and effect on well-being.
Here are a few of my own transitions matched to my experience:
* Moving to a strange city for a two-year job assignment in my husband's work: disoriented, feeling of emptiness, excited, challenged by daily essentials, feeling I had stepped out of my real life into a vacuum, lonely, sense of enormous opportunity. Looking back, now that I've been home a couple of years, I'd say that that transition, though difficult, particularly at first, was much more positive than negative.
* Caring for elderly parents with health problems: discouraged, tired, confronted, sad, watching for any breakthroughs made in medicine or science that might help, anxious about their daily well-being, angry when they wouldn't accept help that was available in the community, wanting to be with them as much as possible because I loved them so much. That transition was many years long-ended only by their deaths eight days apart and the start of a new transition-and was mostly hard, though there are many memories from that time that warm my heart today. And now I am a font of information for my friends who are just starting into a similar transition with their elders.
* Changing careers: scared, excited, surprised, jolted by ideas and ideals slamming into reality, experiencing loss, supported by others, required to learn over and over, gratified. This transition had a long blank spot in the middle; it was several years after I left my position as a tenured, full professor before I felt grounded in my new career as a writer. Because I initiated the change entirely, I had expected a much quicker and smoother transition. But I didn't know what I didn't know. I really didn't have a clue what personal fears I would face, what I would have to learn to become a woman good at the business aspects of another career, what long, up-front investment I would have to make of my time and hard work before I could hope for any return.
Your list of transitions will show a similar variety of pluses and minuses, loss and gain, pain and satisfaction, long and longer duration.
When each thing is unique in itself, there can be no comparison made.
D. H. Lawrence
When we talk about transitions, then, we are not talking about cookie-cutter situations. Every transition concerns a particular individual living a specific set of experiences. That set of experiences varies just as personally and uniquely as individuals themselves differ from every other human being on the planet.
A Paradox: Different, Yet the Same
Even while each of us lives out a tough transition in our own unique way, we are all standing on the same threshold. A threshold that marks the passage from how things were to how things are going to be. Anthropologists write a lot about thresholds, those times that mark an individual's leaving one way of life and beginning another. Any of us would smile if we look at the origin of the word threshold in Old English, where it refers to a thorn, then going all the way back to the Danish, where it means to thresh or beat with a stick. That's how a lot of transitions feel when we're experiencing a tough time.
What is living on a threshold like? What is normal when we find ourselves propelled into a tough transition?
The word threshold in Old English refers to a thorn. In ancient Danish it means to thresh or beat with a stick.
People who study such things say this: Standing on a threshold and living a transition is a time of "betwixt and between," a time when we feel as if we are traveling through a realm or dimension that has few or none of the qualities our lives will have in the future, a time that can be compared to feeling invisible, being in the wilderness, falling into the dark, living in floating worlds. There can be terrible ambiguity and confusion.
At the same time, finding ourselves on the threshold in a tough transition can be viewed as an enormous opportunity. It is a time when we can be inwardly transformed and outwardly changed. A time associated with major reformulation, open-endedness, and possibility. Instead of a time of what is, it is a time of what can be. At any moment the way we ordered our thoughts and actions in the past can be revised. There is a strong chance that we will come up with ways of thinking, ways of making connections and relationships, that we have never experienced before. We may break free from old ways of thinking and come up with new ways we want to live.
It is all this that we share in common, no matter the specificity of our individual transitions. We share the experience of living a threshold event, of navigating ourselves in that "floating world" between how they used to be and how things will be.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view That stand upon the threshold of the new.
The Promise of This Book
Once I joined a small group of women in exploring a part of the Mojave Desert. We left behind the world we knew so well-asphalt highways, running water, road maps with markings printed in different colors, bathrooms, and Starbucks coffee-to enter a wilderness. There were no set markings and no clear path. Even our guides got lost on several occasions and we had to retrace our route to attempt to find some kind of landmark.
Gradually, however, all of us-guides and neophytes alike-got better at reading the terrain and recognizing the signs that nature provided. We learned to make a distinction between a dry creek bed that would be safe to camp by and a wide crevice that was likely to become a rushing torrent when the rain fell. What had begun as only twenty shades of brown-ground, bushes, cacti, jackrabbits, roots-became, as we grew more and more familiar with the wilderness we were exploring, purple and gray and red and soft sage green. We were learning the territory. Over the days we came to know more and more what to expect and could appreciate the diversity that lay before us rather than fear it.
Life offstage has sometimes been a wilderness of unpredictables in an unchoreographed world.
Margot Fonteyn, dancer
This book exists as a guide through the unfamiliar terrain of tough transitions-a way to help us recognize the potential that change brings; for whether you are literally or figuratively in the desert, the mere knowledge that a trail exists can help immeasurably. Many experts have studied these wildernesses of change that we traverse as we retire, blend families, lose money, change jobs, move house, age, tend elders, grieve the absence of family and friends, deal with chronic illnesses, and watch the kids grow up and leave home (or come back home, as is often the case now).
In addition to reading experts' findings, I have personally experienced my share of tough transitions: divorce, sudden death of a young husband, job loss, career change, suicide of a grandfather, remarriage including blending families, several moves, illness of parents and then death of parents eight days apart, to name a few. And I have talked to dozens of friends and acquaintances about their tough transitions.
From the research of the experts, from my own experience, and from the wisdom of friends and acquaintances, I describe in this book the territory of a tough transition-the terrain that is similar for all of us, even though our individual transitions are personal and specific. No matter the exact nature of our transitions, we share many things in common.
We all start the transition in a place of uncertainty, newness, unfamiliarity, and potential strain. We all must, at some point, take stock of what our options are, what we can and can't do in a particular situation, what will help us move forward and what will suck us down into the quicksand of apathy. We all take steps into new places as part of navigating a tough transition, practice, fall back, practice again new ways of thinking and new models of living. We all have the opportunity to create a life that includes in an honest way the implications of the tough transition without our being defined by or identified by that tough transition. And we all have the possibility of achieving what Dr. Heinz Kohut calls "victorious outcomes" from our tough transitions. We can all be not just survivors but, in spite of the hard times, thrivers.
... through ditches, over hedges, through chiffons, through waiters, over saxophones, to the victorious finish ...
Edna St. Vincent Millay
If you let it, this book will serve as your guide to describing the passage through tough transitions. You can learn what people have done who have stood on the threshold and then stepped out into the unknown and the unfamiliar. You can be taught-and inspired-by people who walked out into the wilderness and lived to tell the tale.
Excerpted from Tough Transitions by Elizabeth Harper Neeld Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Harper Neeld . Excerpted by permission.
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