Today’s theme is on transitions in life, and the summer is itself a time of transition. It is an invitation to a slower pace, to take time to rest, and to allow for renewal from within. As a result, I will pause for a few summer weeks from this weekly reflection, with the hope of a renewed awareness when they resume. In this light, I wish each of you a wonderful. wondrous, and wonder-filled summer. With immense gratitude for each of you.
Transitions in Life
I recently listened to a podcast that spoke of liminality. The word comes from a Latin term and means threshold. It is like a door frame where we pass from the outside world into the inside world of our own or someone else’s house. To stand on the threshold of something is to be in a space between two worlds. It has often been described as a state of betwixt and between. It is an in-between state, situation, or experience, in which we are no longer inhabiting our past familiar world and have yet to discover and enter a new world.
Adolescence is one such time, when we are no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Often, we react against any authority in one moment and are looking for an authority to tell us what to do in the next.
I recall an almost comic example in my first teaching experience in Buffalo NY. I asked students to write down an answer to two questions. First, what kind of a course did they not want, and second, what kind of a course did they want. On the first question, they replied overall that they did not want anything shoved down their throats. On the second question, they requested a practical course. I suggested that their first response echoed a familiar adolescent theme: “No one can tell me what to do.” I then said that if that is the case, then I alone am responsible for what I do and its consequences. That realization would lead them to say. “Help! What am I supposed to do?” In other words, the betwixt and between here is an example of the transition between childhood and adulthood. It is the passage between being looked after and having to look after our own lives
Another example is the feast of Hallowe’en, when children dress up often in scary or humourous costumes, and roam the neighbourhood asking for treats. When my son was two and a half years old, Lorraine, his mother, took him, in some seemingly fierce get-up, to the doors of a few neighbours. He pretended to scare them and they pretended to be scared. Then he assured them that it was only Billy. What seemed to be happening was that he was in some way aware of a certain element of fierceness within himself, and yet that was not the real him.
I recall another experience when Lorraine and I were visiting at her uncle’s farm in Radway, Alberta, a little north of Edmonton. In an obscure part of the property, I came across a small cabin, certainly abandoned, but with a few objects scattered inside. One that caught my attention was a woman’s shoe with high laces, a kind not worn for generations. It made me think of how that shoe belonged to someone who lived in a different time and place and culture, of which there is now only this fragmentary evidence.
There are so many transitions–in time and place and culture, as well as in individual lives. Many of these have been marked by rituals, such as marriages and funerals, or even by the changing of the seasons. Others seem more internal, although certainly expressed in outward behaviour.
I recall one instance when I was living in Quebec City, in my early twenties. I had a gradually dawning rather than sudden experience. I felt that everything I had ever learned and been told was not so much either true or untrue but unreal. It was like a jacket that no longer fit. I did not feel that there would necessarily result in a change of ideas or values. But there was a vivid sense that these now had to emerge from within rather than be simply accepted from without. They needed now to come from who I was rather than what I was told. There may be other times in life when such a development may occur. It may be that the convictions that have helped us for years no longer seem to apply.
Spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, provides a helpful illustration. He speaks of the two halves of life. These are not necessarily two chronological ages, but rather two levels of awareness. The first half of life is spent building our sense of identity, importance, and security. This he calls the false self, the image we present to the world and even ourselves. But inevitably we discover, often through failure or a significant loss, that this image is not all of us. In the second half of life, we discover that it is no longer sufficient to find meaning in being successful or wealthy. We need a deeper source of meaning and purpose. Now aliveness comes from the inside out. The second half of life is about learning to recognize, honor, and love this inner voice.
A basic transition in life is precisely to move from outer acceptability to inner authenticity. As Rohr suggests, it is often occasioned by a sorrow or loss, that reveals its inadequacy, or its being part of an earlier, no longer applicable, stage of life. I recall another image which spoke of shedding shells. Apparently, there is a species of crab that periodically becomes too large for its present shell, and remains vulnerable for a time until its new shell grows. Just as we need to shed our clothing as we grow, so too as we grow inwardly, we need to shed outer ideas, beliefs and attitudes, that are no longer life-giving.
In part, this process involves, I believe, recognizing the sacredness of being alive, of the very gift of life, the gift of who we are, rather than what we do or what we have. The pathway to this recognition appears to be solitude, friendship, and social involvement, all underlined by and flowing from presence. It is rooted in being and living from our inmost self.
While this growth does evolve from within us, at the same time it involves a deeper awareness of our connection with all that is and with the universe itself. I like the words of Einstein: “The soul given to each of us is moved by the same living spirit that moves the Universe.” I once summarized the thought of Thomas Merton in these words: I am a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe.
May your life more and more unfold in terms of who you truly are, with gratitude for the gift of yourself and your life, and generosity for all.
Norman King, June 26, 2023