How Transitions are Kind of Like Getting Lost on a Hike

Transition.

It has become an unexpected theme these past few months, as I’ve processed out loud the heart wrenching and messy and beautiful process of saying goodbye to one chapter and heading into a new one. This week, the transition is reaching a pinnacle, as I move out of my Kansas City house I’ve called home for three years, say goodbye to the dear friends I’ve shared life with over the last five years.

The process of transitions seemed to mirror my experience of hiking on the unfamiliar mountain trails that I went on these past few weeks while housesitting for some friends in Denver.

Most adventures involve feeling lost at some point. Thinking back on the hikes, it’s the moments of uncertainty that made the journey memorable. It’s the unplanned routes that lead to the most breath-taking vistas. And yet, in the midst of it, sweaty and thirsty, and more out of breath than you should be for a healthy young person, you feel it all. The panic of feeling lost, the drudgery of the uphill stretches, the relief at discovering you are on the right trail and the moments of awe on the crest of the mountain.

Always, transitions move us forward.* “Further up and further on” as C.S. Lewis calls our invitation into more. Below is the description of the journey that I’ve been on that has mirrored the adventures my feet are traveling.

The Dead End

The comforting, well-worn path peters out into a copse of trees. Squinting in the high-altitude sunlight, I peer beyond the boulders for the continued path. The well-worn grooves of the path melt into the pine-needled floor. Unfolding the crumpled map I slipped into my back pocket, I try to make sense of the tangled ribbons of multicolored trails, feeling more disoriented by the moment. Glancing around for a boulder, I sit down to catch my breath and take some gulps from my lukewarm water bottle.  As my breaths come in more steadily, I take in the valley stretching out below the bluff I’ve come against. Glaciers of cloud shadows glide over the evergreen carpeted foothills ahead. Off in the distance, a purple bruised  sky threatens rain. My plan for the 3.2-mile trail that my friend recommended is decidedly not what I am on, I figure, studying at the map again.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

We may know the end of a road is coming (a graduation, the end of a lease). Or the end may come abruptly and unannounced (the end of a relationship or the loss of a job). Either way, a “dead end” always involves a death of “life as we currently know it.” Sometimes these ends are tangible and external, but there is a multitude of deaths that we experience that are more subtle and internal.

A dead end may come in the form of the end of a “honeymoon period” in the newness of  a relationship. Or it might be the loss of your sense of wholeness in a season of failure, depression, or woundedness. It can even be the feeling of loss we experience as our own preconceived ideas about how the world works unravel.

The dead end I faced this past year was a culmination of so many of these things. The realization that the career I was in wasn’t for me anymore. The decision to travel which meant letting go of the place I’ve called home. I’ve experienced many small deaths to my idea of “certainty” this past year as things I thought were definite became more unclear.

The thing about dead ends is that have to name them. See them for what they are, and then turn around. The only way to move forward is to get back on the path.

A Fork In the Road

Resituating my backpack on my shoulders, I start retracing my steps. I remember that a half mile back there was a signpost, so I make that my goal. It’s uphill terrain, the roots of the pine trees making steep stair steps further and further up. I get to the place where there’s a fork in the road. I could turn right. I know that a ways down the path is the parking lot, the map with the reassuring “You Are Here” arrow. Or I could turn left. The path continues up, switchbacks preventing me from seeing the final destination. With another cursory glance towards to storm clouds on the horizon, I turn left and continue up the slope.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetIn the wake of our deaths, we are faced with a choice. A strong pull within us for self-protection and self-preservation calls for staying put or turning back. But there’s another whisper inside us as well. The call to adventure. The call to live life to the fullest possible extent.

And that involves risk. It involves the challenging work of moving forward, even in the uncertainty. Life is found in forward motion, not back. Retreating, refusing to move on will either result in unhealthy fantasy or ever intensifying bitterness.

We live in a universe that is always moving forward. Inner transformation happens when we join in this unfinished business of transformation that all of Creation is undergoing. When we choose the riskier path of inner transformation.

Feeling Lost

All bravado from the fork in the road ebbs away with the wind whistling through the juniper leaves. What if I’m heading further away from where I wanted to go? What if I hit another dead end and I have to turn back, this time five miles away from my car? What if it starts raining? The rustle of leaves makes my heart go into double time. Moments later, my eyes roll in self-mockery as a ground squirrel darts across the path. My eyes search for a guidepost, reassurance that I’m on the right trail. But all I see in my line of sight are more and more switchbacks.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetThis part of the journey is messy. Grieving the loss of comfortable familiarity is a part that cannot be skipped in the process of transition. Moments of self-doubt, the arrival of fear and the tangle of what-ifs are inevitable.

Before we move on to the new, we must grieve what we are losing. To attempt sidestepping these uncomfortable moments is to deny your own humanity.

I feel like I’m just getting out of the thick of this stage in the process of transitions. I knew it would come, but that didn’t make it any less messy. This time, though, rather than resisting the storm of uncertainty, I tried to pass through it. Sometimes it was a struggle just to put one foot in front of the other, but knowing that this was a necessary part of the process helped.

Staying the Course

There were no external confirmations that I was headed in the right direction. But internally I feel a shift of new confidence as I keep climbing. My senses feel more awake up in the alpine air. The distinct aroma of mountain air that no candle or air freshener can even hope to replicate fills my lungs. My eyes land on the happy yellow teacup of a flower, stubbornly growing atop a cactus. Aspen leaves dappled the sunlight above, and between the trees, a snow-capped mountain range cuts the horizon. Well, I think, I’m not sure where I’m headed, but I am here. And I love that I am here in this moment.

IMG_1365Between the doubt and the fear, poking through the brush like the views of the mountains, are glimpses of deep and resounding peace. Discovered by patient attention to the present moment, there are moments where we become brave enough to let go of the season we are leaving behind.

These aren’t the trite Hallmark card-sounding optimism that we pull out for talking to our acquaintances, but a deep equanimity that has come through the hard work of grieving and wrestling with the death we went through.

We find that we are able to be blessed by the past season. With all its imperfections, heartbreaks, and monotony, we see it for what it was. A beautiful part of our story that shaped us and laid the foundation, not only for this very moment, but also for the unforeseeable next season we are headed towards.

We recognize that there were beautiful moments of deep belonging and significance that named us. We also are able to honor the bruises and scars we carry as souvenirs, wounds that hurt like hell in the moment, but from which truth and growth flowed out in a way that we wouldn’t have traded for the world.

The line between honoring the past and the trap of nostalgia is subtle. With a little bit of distance between where I am now and that gorgeous view that the dead end led me too, I feel the urge to go back, to camp out there. But we cannot cling to the past if we want to fully inhabit the life we are now living. Rather, we enter into the dance of celebrating the gifts we have received and setting our sights on the road ahead. Believing C.S. Lewis’ promise that “there are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Arrival

The light starts to come down in ever widening shafts, the canopy clearing ahead to the peak of the mountain. Panoramic views dizzy my senses. My heart  is overwhelmed at the shades of hills and slopes repeating into the distance. Billowing cumulus mountains compete for grandeur with the peaks and slopes on the ground, their extravagant temporariness contrasting the mountains’ sheer confidence. I resist my millennial urge to look first through my iPhone screen, capturing the beauty and not really seeing it. I climb up onto a stack of boulders, taking me out that much further into the beauty and sit down cross-legged on the sun-warmed stone. Any memory of anxiety over whether I was on the right path is distant. The thought of turning back at the moment of feeling lost now seems laughable, as I drink in the beauty of the adventure.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetSo what happens on the other side of transition? What does it feel like to settle into the newness of what’s next? That’s a great question. I don’t think, in this transition, that I’m there yet. I’m probably back on the path, starting to accept where I am, being blessed by the dead ends and refusing the urge to turn back.

I think the arrival feels like embracing the spirit of the new season, which looks and feels different from the spirit of the last season. It’s a joyful settling into my new skin, learning how to fully inhabit the life I am currently living.

And, at some moment, it will come time to keep moving forward. There will come a time when this season will become a dead end. And rather than clinging, it will be time again to receive the invitation to “further up and further in.” On this side, that longing for home will never fully be satisfied.

And that is okay. “In order to come to fuller life and spirit, we must constantly be letting go of the present life and Spirit.”

*The framework of thought for this post came from an article I read called A Spirituality  of the Paschal Mystery. It is a chapter in the book The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser.

Embracing Your Own Mystery

“To be totally honest, I don’t know who I am. And I don’t think people ever will know who they are. We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I? I am a mystery to myself. I am someone who is in this pilgrimage from the moment that I was born to the day to come that I’m going to die… So, what I have to do is to honor this pilgrimage through life. And so I am this pilgrim…who’s constantly amazed by this journey. Who is learning a new thing every single day. But who’s not accumulating knowledge, because then it becomes a very heavy burden in your back. I am this person who is proud to be a pilgrim, and who’s trying to honor his journey.”      Paolo Cuehlo

A lot of the time, I want to have myself “All Figured Out.” I used to think I was one good journal session away from an Ultimate Breakthrough. I’d pour over personality test literature like a gold miner in California. Rather than searching for gold, I was yearning for a mirror to reflect back all the subtleties of my identity. Such relief was felt in articulating just how I was feeling and why, and then what I was going to do with that. Action plans and poetic self-actualization at its finest, folks.

The thing about entering into transitions, planned or not, is that they expose to us our own mysteries. Our predetermined presumptions fall away as new environments or situations bring out inner enigmas and paradoxes.

canoe girlSee, transitions have a way of slowing us down, or at least breaking us out of our normal routines of insulating familiarity. The hidden undercurrents of what we have been taking for granted become exposed. Our habits, our way of interacting with the world, our desires and interests, our very personality are seen in new light.

Inklings come to the surface: I thought this is what I wanted, but now I’m not so sure…I never thought I would’ve even considered that opportunity, but now I find myself intrigued…I used to assume that this was the way it was, but what if it isn’t? Rather than the clear-cut assumptions we’ve been living out of, we find within ourselves a cacophony of opposing desires and driving forces.

What will we do with these new revelations? Change at any level can be scary. When we sense this metamorphosis happening at our core, we are faced with a choice. Do we submit to the process of death (of our old selves, our old way of being) and the painful/awkward process of figuring out a new life? Or do we run to the safety of business-as-usual?

It depends on whether you see the world you inhabit as static or dynamic.

A static view of the world: Things are finished. Already written. I am the way that I am. The world is going to keep going on the trajectory that has been set since the beginning of time.

A dynamic view of the world: The world is unfinished. Things were set in motion, but we have agency, choice, response-ability to interact. I can change things and be changed.

A static viewpoint would dismiss new awakenings as passing fancies.

A dynamic viewpoint would listen attentively, holding back judgment.

A static viewpoint sees life as something that is happening to you.

A dynamic viewpoint sees life as an open invitation to enter into the creative process.

A static viewpoint says “This is the way I am.”

A dynamic viewpoint says, “That was who I was. Who am I now becoming?”

A static viewpoint sticks to the planned narrative.

A dynamic viewpoint is open to plot twists.

dock lake mountainsWe feel frustrated when others tell us about ourselves, announcing with a smug gleam in their eye something to the effect of “Oh, let me tell you who you are. I know what you are thinking. I know what you want. This is the way you always act.”

How dare you? You don’t know the first thing about me! We think daggers at them as we smile tight smiles with our ingrained politeness.

And yet, isn’t this exactly what we do with ourselves all the time? Well, that’s just the way that I am. I always (fill in the blank). I’ll never (fill in the blank). We get stuck in our own ruts of familiarity. We succumb to repeated history, with a shrug. Truth is, we’ve started letting others, our past, and our current circumstances name us a long time ago, and it’s just a lot easier to stay the course.

There’s something comforting in choosing a static view of the world and ourselves. We take solace in thinking that we don’t really change that much over the course of our lives. We like the stories our mothers tell at family gatherings about how we were when we were toddlers, and how our personality traits that we now possess were evident, even then.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I geek out about discussions around personality. I find the dynamics of how we are wired and how that affects us fascinating. But I felt a paradigm shift happening while listening to NPR’s Invisibilia a couple of weeks ago. (If you don’t listen to this podcast, you’re wrong. Start at season 1, and then let me know so we can talk about it!)

There was an episode on the “myth of personality.” What if these assumptions about how our dispositions stay constant throughout our lives were just that, assumptions? Assumptions that we build our lives around. Personality tests are excellent diagnostic tools to discover why we are the way we are currently, but they can be dangerous when they start becoming the definition of who we are, a sentence of who we will remain. Equally dangerous is the act of putting our full identity in our occupation, or a specific relationship, role or tribe.

Even though we hate the idea of labels and bristle at others trying to put us into boxes, why is it that we cling to these self-descriptions? Why do I feel just a little bit lost now that I don’t have a nice and tidy answer to the question “What do you do?” It’s harder than it sounds to make peace with our own mysteries and contradictions. I feel a safe sense of control when I have things “figured out.” When I can pin things down in a static viewpoint, I know how to operate.

It is true that there are patterns, predictable tendencies from the interwoven mystery of our genes and our environment. And our brains need to have categories, which involve labels. Sitting down to wrap my mind around something is a necessary step in moving forward. That’s not the issue. The issue comes when we settle into those categories, becoming rigid in the way we see our own possibilities of who we are.

The question is, how willing are we to be surprised by ourselves?

mountain canoeThe quote at the beginning of this post is from Krista Tippett’s interview with Paulo Coehlo. I am challenged and inspired by what he said. “We have to be humble enough to learn to live with this mysterious question. Who am I?” Author of the book The Alchemist, Coelho was a man who lived his life as one on the journey of pilgrimage. To say, at the age of 66 “I don’t know who I am” is a statement that belies a humble wisdom. I like to think that I’ve got myself figured out at age 28 1/2. But in transition’s stark clarity, I see that I have so much unlearning to do. I want to adopt Paolo’s generous curiosity towards myself.

I want to fully enter into the “endless process of becoming” as Rob Bell calls it. And the older I get, the more I’m realizing that wisdom isn’t in arriving at conclusions and staying there. It’s more a series of funerals and birthdays; letting go of the old and being open to the new. I truly am being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I’m not letting go of who I am, but becoming more deeply myself.