“CONSIDERING THAT WE HAVE TO DEAL WITH ENDINGS all our lives, most of us handle them poorly. This is in part because we misunderstand them and take them either too seriously or not seriously enough. We take them too seriously by confusing them with finality—that’s it, all over, never more, finished! We see them as something without sequel, forgetting that they are the first phase of the transition process and a precondition of self-renewal. At the same time, we fail to take them seriously enough. Because they scare us, we try to avoid them.”William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes
I blundered into re-homing a fully-grown Newfoundland the same way I’ve blundered into every important thing in my life: resolute and unprepared.
My teenage daughter had been begging for another dog, a big, snuggly one who would sleep on her bed. A full year into the pandemic isolation, with no end of that in sight, a dog appeared and we adopted him.
There’s a longer story, of course, but the details are unimportant.
We didn’t have him, and then we did.
Accepting the reality of what he is (100 pounds of highly intelligent, untrained, loving, territorial dog who sheds, and barks, a lot) has required letting go of the idea of him (a cute, cuddly, mellow dog like others we’ve had or known). Working with a trainer, a former Air Force dog handler, we are learning, the dog and I, together.
“The best way to build a relationship with your dog,” the trainer said, “is to walk. He’ll learn how you expect him to behave if you’ll give him the chance and put in the work.”
And so, as the weather allows (because he can’t take the heat), the big, hairy, barking, ill-behaved dog and I are walking together into an uncertain future, learning to let go of the past.
Our route changes every day, per the trainer’s direction, because varying the route teaches the dog to pay attention and adapt, keeps us both on our toes, free from either routine or nostalgia.
Like all change, this daily launch into the unknown is both liberating and anxiety-provoking. As Tim Ferris has said, given a choice between the two, people would rather be unhappy than uncertain.
Ironic, yes? The only thing that is utterly certain in life is change, but the human tendency is to fight like hell against it.
The late William Bridges devoted his life’s work to helping companies and organizations understand the difference between CHANGE (an event) and TRANSITION (response). His theory was grounded in humanism, not process engineering. Bridges encouraged the companies he worked with to understand and embrace the reality that it isn’t change but rather transition that needs our attention. People change lanes, mentally, at different speeds and with varying degrees of comfort (or discomfort). Companies that approach transition with a humanistic view, in Bridges’s estimation, are far more successful than those that force rigid, transactional change.
Bridges’s model is simple: every transition to a new beginning must start with an ending, and the ending can feel like loss. There is no good path to the future until the past has been acknowledged and released.
In between the past and the future is the wilderness, a time of great ambiguity as the seeds of the future take root. The uncertainty and uncomfortable nature of the wilderness can easily drive people back to the certainty of the past – it can make the change seem like it’s not worth the effort.
The wilderness is where the hard work is. It’s mushy and prickly at the same time, and without a strong beacon pulling toward the future, without a clear vision of the promise ahead, there’s just no getting through the wilderness.
So what happens instead, when the wilderness becomes overwhelming?
People head back to the comfort and theoretical certainty of the past. Only the past isn’t there anymore.
As I look back on my accidental career in change management and simultaneously reflect on 21 years of motherhood, adult reinvention, and ceaseless global turmoil, it occurs to me that Bridges’s work is universally applicable.
Taking a child to college is the wilderness on steroids. It’s an easy place to get stuck, longing either for the recent past (active parenting) or the distant past (before becoming a parent), neither of which is a reliable narrator.
What’s important to remember is that false certainty of the past is the greatest adversary of the future, for both children and parents.
Instead of trying to get back to a past that no longer exists, perhaps the ideal ought to be saying something like: Thank you, old life, for lessons of experience. Hey, I see you, new self, and I’m willing to put in the work to get to you.
A leap forward requires holding a vision, a mental image, of the promise ahead: Frame the picture. Release the shutter. See what might happen next.
About this series:
For the month of August (ish), as a birthday present to myself, I decided to do another daily (ish) writing challenge. This year, not unlike last year, it’s been all about RE-committing to writing. So far that includes: Reengage, Reconsider, Reassess, Review, Redefine, Relish, Relay, Reinvent, Reevaluate, Reroute, Restore, Rediscover, Reflect, Remember, Reboot, Revisit, Refine, Relate, Repeat, Return, Revive, Rel__s_, and Re_ea_e. (You see what I did – or tried to do – with these last three? As my daughter is fond of saying, Mama tried.)
More to come; stay tuned?