What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
“Little Gidding,” from Four Quartets.
According to the father of humanistic therapy, Carl Rogers, “the facts are always friendly”. Every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area leads one that much closer to the truth. And being closer to the truth can never be a harmful or dangerous or unsatisfying thing. When reading the rest of this ending related “tale” keep this idea in mind.
While I hate readjusting my thinking, I hate giving up old ways of perceiving and conceptualising, at some deeper level I have come to realise that these painful reorganisations are what is known as learning, and that though painful, life at its best is a flowing process in which nothing is fixed. Under this light, the exploration and growth processes violate our too-seldom idea that development means gain and has nothing to do with loss. However, to become something new you must first stop being what you are now.
We deal with endings all our lives, and most of us handle them poorly. This is because we misunderstand them and treat them either too seriously or not seriously at all. We take them too seriously when we confuse their implications to our lives as final- it’s all over, never more, finished. Under this light, we fail to see that endings form the first phase of transition and that they foster self-renewal. This is not entirely our fault or predicament. It is a maladaptive gift of modern society. We all want to get on with beginnings. The hell with endings! This is very much reflected in our language: “Don’t cry over spilled milk”, “What’s done is done”, “Let bygones be bygones”. By viewing endings as initiations to a new state of being, the so-called present is the past that we have not yet let go of. Imagine that growth is symbolised by a newly planted seed. It cannot take root, grow and provide us with the fruits of our labour if the ground is still covered with old habits, attitudes and outlooks. Endings are a clearing out process. To experience this is both fascinating and ranges from little to very frightening.
One of the advantages of being familiarised with passage rituals is that they help make sense of the idea that endings involve a symbolic death. The “I”, “he”, “she” we might have identified with in the past disintegrates during an ending. If we have the idea that disintegration equates with malfunction, we might assume that there is a way of repairing our lives, to maintain the previously held status quo. People struggling with changes, with dealing with the new order of their lives, often realise that fixing things would not suffice. Our need might be to let the person-that-we-used-to-be die and go through a renewal process.
According to William Bridges (Transitions, 2004), the natural ending process has five aspects: disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment and disorientation.
There is a belief amongst different cultures that at times of inner transition people must separate from familiar places and their social order. The prospective shaman leaves the village and sets on a long journey of self-discovery. Nowadays, no initiation-master rings the bell one morning and says, “your time has come”. We might find ourselves willingly or unwillingly disengaged from activities, relationships, settings and the roles that have been important to us in the past. What if disengagements were signals that a time of personal transition was beginning?
To ask such questions when the loss is still fresh is often pointless and might also be cruel. A person who recently lost a friend, parent, a job, or had a heart attack is in no place to hear about symbolic events and their potential meaning. Such people often come to these conclusions in a much later point of their experience. For example, divorces, death, job changes, illnesses and many lesser events disengage us from the contexts in which we have known ourselves. They break down the old way of doing things, what used to reinforce our roles and the pattern of our behaviour. It is not just the removal of the old system which forces us to devise a new one, the way that an economic crisis might lead to bartering. With the old system ending, a person is free to imagine an alternative way of life and an alternative identity.
Changing your positioning and roles in your personal and social relationships is where the transition process begins. However, disengagement only stops the old signals and cues from being received. The life infrastructure you’ve created in response to the old signals remains untouched. This involves the elements which gave you your sense of identity. Disengagement can occur in one moment: “I’m leaving! We are finished! I quit! Goodbye!”. However, your old habits, behaviours and ways of doing things can only be taken apart one piece or layer at a time. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has put forward the theory regarding the stages of the “grieving process”. This process regards people who come to terms with a loss. It begins with denial and ends with acceptance. There is a parallel and separate process which unfolds as people go through the emotional process of coping with loss.
The parallel process refers to people gradually shifting from the old way of identifying themselves and create themselves anew. For example, a grieving widower moves on from identifying himself as “we” and starts thinking of himself as an “I”. This shift is accompanied by a good deal of emotion, but these feelings are reactions to the process not the process itself. If we do not differentiate between these two processes, we might mistakenly believe that a person who is overwhelmed by emotions after a loss is doing important inner work, and that a person who is not, is not doing any.
Look at how our society deals with loss. Grieving is formalised and highly stylised, with the underlying assumption that such practices help people get through or over the experience of loss. However, dealing with loss often involves coming to terms with dismantling our old world and the identity we had built in it. The process can be described by the metaphor of remodelling a house, which replicates the three-part transition process: it starts by making an ending and destroying what used to be. There is a time when it’s not the old way any more but not yet the new way either. This occurs when some dismantling is still going on, and so is some building. It is a very confusing time, and as the contractors often warn, remodelling always takes more time and money than new construction.
In breaking your old connections to the world and taking apart the internal structures required by these connections, we lose the old ways of defining ourselves. Clients who go through a divorce might experience that by divorcing they lost their “mirror”, the way they used to identify themselves. Others who lose their jobs can experience that the loss of a role which prescribed their behaviour and made them identifiable, shifting from “I am an accountant”, to “I used to work for an auditing firm”, to “now I am…undiscovered”.
One way or another, most people in transition experience uncertainty regarding who they are now. This corresponds to a very important element of most rite of passage ceremonies. The removal of the old identity and the temporary assumption of a non-identity. In other cultures, this might be represented and symbolised by shaved heads, painted faces, masks, strange clothing or no clothing at all, or the abandonment of one’s old name. It would be lovely if we could assume other names for this transitional process. The Aztecs had a name for women who create themselves: Moyocoyotzin.
The disidentification process is typically the inner side of the disengagement process. It is often particularly distressing in occupational transitions, where old roles and titles were an important part of the person’s identity. No longer being Bob’s wife, a salesman, no longer being the old me or a young person can be a source of panic. If I am not what I used to be, then what am I? As Sheldon from Big Bang Theory beautifully stated: my existence is a continuum, so I’ve been what I am at each point in the implied time-period.
But how do we deal with such levels of uncertainty? It is important to remember the significance of disindentification. Essentially, this leads to loosening the bonds of the person we think we are, so we can transition to a new identity.
Separated from the old identity and the old ways of being, a person floats in between two worlds. There is still the old version of reality in that person’s head. A picture of “the way things are/were” which ties us to the old world with subtle assumptions and expectations. The sun will rise tomorrow, my mother loves me, the gods are just, if I do ‘x’ then ‘y’ is likely to result. These things form the basis of our understanding of the world, and if they no longer apply, then our world is no longer real. This discovery that our world is no longer as we know it, is what we mean by disenchantment.
Look back at different disenchantments in your life. Santa Claus is not real, parents sometimes lie and are afraid, parents make mistakes and like silly things, best friends let you down. Disenchantments do not end with youth. Life contains many disenchantments of various sizes: lovers who prove unfaithful, leaders who are corrupt, our idols turn out to be petty, organisations betray our trust. Worst of all, there are times where you discovered that you turned out to be what you said and believed you are not. Disenchantment is a recurrent experience for anyone who has the courage to ongoingly learn and develop. Because disenchantment requires noticing.
Transitions might even begin with disenchantment, and the person can only gradually begin to see the disenchantment process as meaningful. If you are suddenly fired, it is pointless to talk about old and new realities at that point. It is important however, to reflect on these things as with realities, connections and identities, the old must be cleared away to make room for the new. This process is hard, as it goes against everything we have been taught via our culture. In western cultures, growth is viewed as an additive process. We did not have to unlearn the first grade to go on to the second. We do not expect to give up old beliefs to mature. The termination process goes against the accepted idea that development means gain and has nothing to do with loss.
The lesson of disenchantment starts with discovering that if I want to change- really change not just readjust, I must realise that a significant part of my old reality was in my head, not out there. The perfect parents, the utterly trustworthy friend, the perfect lover are constructed roles of our imagination. We were essentially casting actors to play out our imagined belief system. As a result, when these roles break down due to life turning points, we feel cheated, as if they were trying all along to trick us. Usually though, the “real” role, or our understanding of it, was as real as we could handle at that time.
Disenchantment, when it occurs, is a signal that things are moving into transition. As if we open the curtains to let the sun in, after sleeping. Our eyes need time to readjust to the brighter light, as we need time to readjust in our new worlds. The whole idea of disenchantment relies on reality having many layers, none “wrong”, and all appropriate to our phase of intellectual and spiritual development.
Disenchantment must not be confused with disillusionment. The disenchanted person recognised the old view as sufficient in its time, but insufficient now: “I needed to believe that husbands/friends/parents etc were always trustworthy; it protected me against some anxieties”. The disillusioned person on the other hand, rejects the embodiment of the earlier view. They might find a new husband or a new boss but leave unchanged the old view of relationships. The disillusioned person stops and goes through the play again with new actors. The quest goes around in circles, and real movement and real development are stifled. The disenchanted person moves on.
The reality that is left behind in endings, is not just a memory of how things were. The realisation of a new reality results in a sense. A sense of which way is up, and which way is down. It is a sense of which way is forward, and which way will carry us backwords. In passage rituals, this would be acted out by being taken into unfamiliar territory and left there. All the signs of orientation are thus gone, and the only remaining source of direction would be the heavens, one’s state of mind. One must be lost enough to find oneself.
We are likely to experience feelings of being lost, confused, don’t-know-where-I-am, that deepen as we become disengaged, disidentified and disenchanted. One of the effects of disorientation is the loss of our sense of and plans for the future. One cannot view disorientation positively in the moment to moment experience of it. People subjected to the traditional rites of passage did not enjoy or embrace the experience of disorientation. They suffered through it, because that was the way to rebirth. The faith that this will lead to development, enabled the acceptance of their experience as necessary. They did not need to make distress comfortable. Disorientation was and is viewed as meaningful and not enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness.
Some of our resistance to transitioning, comes from fear of emptiness. The problem is not that we do not want to let go of a relationship, a job, or our old identity. The problem is that before we find something new, we must first deal with the nothingness. We are likely to resist and misunderstand significant transitional changes at a time when it is important to seek another perspective. We might try to fit new information to our old identity or reality.
What is time to let go of
The most important difference between changes and transitions, is that changes are driven by reaching goals, while transitions are driven by letting go what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage we are currently in. We need to figure out what exactly does not fit into our lives. There is no premade list. However, rest assured. There’s typically a hint, that whatever this is, is internal. It is true that you might emerge from a transition with a clear sense that you need to end a relationship, leave a job, change occupations. That represents the change that your transition has prepared you to make. The transition process begins with letting go of something that you believed or assumed, some outlook on the world, attitude towards others, or attitudes you hold for yourself.
By taking a closer view at the five words describing the process of transition, only one refers exclusively to external things- “disengagement”. “Dismantling” can be an internal and/or external process. “Disidentification”, “Disenchantment” and “Disorientation” all refer to internal processes. It is the internal things that hold us tied to the past. People who only try to deal with externals are the people who walk out of relationships, leave jobs, move countries, but do not end significantly different from what and who they used to be. They most likely learned to use change to avoid transitions. For example, they might leave a job because of their rotten boss, rather than discover what it is in themselves that keeps finding un-supporting work environments and bosses. They end up replaying the same broken record, rather than letting go of behaviours, attitudes, assumptions and images of self and others that keep making relationships turn out this way.
In other situations, transitions and endings can also involve external changes. For example, people who move to another country or even town, and embrace a new way of life are making changes that will put them into transition. Essentially, change can lead to transition, and transitions can also lead to change. They may have made the change because they are starting to seek different things from life. As with children who outgrow their clothes, adults can outgrow their habits. At certain times, “endings” that foster transition usually come before or after the “endings” that are part of change. This reminds me of a personal experience, where I felt an imminent internal ending to one of my relationships. I heard myself telling one of my friends: “you know it really ended a few months before we officially ended our relationship, but I wasn’t ready to face it. It was only when we actually spoke the words that I could admit it was over”. And you know what? That is OK.
When a person is overwhelmed by a change, the transition and especially the ending, is hard to comprehend. This reminds us that time not only reconciles us to loss. It helps us to understand the loss, so that we can live through it. As Rainer Maria Rilke, beautifully stated in “Letters to a Young Poet”:
“I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that — but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself.”
Experiencing the End
Endings begin with something going wrong. For one an ending may be an event; for another it may be a state of mind. The ending-elements do not come in a particular order. In a divorce, one partner may experience disidentification and disorientation, and then decide to act- leading them to disengagement. For the other partner, unaware of the other’s internal changes, the ending begins with disengagement and the challenge of disenchantment.
Moreover, there is no normal order of reactions to an ending. One’s reactions might follow Kubler Ross five stages of grief, or not. If you keep fighting your experience, it could imply that you just can’t let go of something in this process. You might need extra support or help, but you certainly don’t need to hear any comments in association with “don’t cry over spilt milk”. Endings are experiences of dying. They are ordeals, difficult and challenging to our sense of who we are. They signify the end of us, and the creation of a new us. As Mircea Eliade said:
“in no rite or myth do we find the initiatory death as something final, but always as the condition sine qua non of a transition to another mode of being, a trial indispensable of regeneration; that is to beginning of life”.
Even though we might view an ending as the conclusion of the situation it terminates, it is also the initiation of a renewal process. Thus, we must not forget that endings have a two-fold aim. I find that I am at my best when I can let the flow of my experience carry me, in a direction which appears to be forward towards goals I am but dimly aware. In thus floating with the complex stream of my experiencing and in trying to understand its ever changing complexity, it should be evident there’s no fix points. When I am able to be in process, it is clear that there can be no closed system of beliefs, no unchanging set of principles which I hold. Life is guided by a changing understanding of and interpretation of my experience. It is always in the process of becoming.