Friday Book Club: The Way of Transition.

June 12, 2020

Friday Book Club: The Way of Transition.

May 29, 2023

The whole MEA library is full of books that speak to the way of transition, but there’s one particular section called “How can I evolve?” that best captures the navigation of midlife transitions. William Bridges’ trailblazing book “Transitions” is there, but so is this book written twenty years later by Bridges which has the subtitle, “Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments.”

While many of Bridges’ books focused on the subject of career transitions, this one is more personal and is a real keeper for anyone going through their own existential shifts during this time of global transformation. In so many ways, this book is a testament to why the Modern Elder Academy exists.

One of the fundamental tenets is the difference between “change” (getting a new boss, moving to a new home, having a child) and “transition” (on a more structural basis, letting go of the way things used to be including who you’ve been and welcoming the “new you”). He suggests that some people “make changes so they won’t have to make transitions.” Sort of like trading in one husband for another one, but realizing that your underlying way of being is the same so the relationship dynamics don’t change all that much. I bet Bridges would have loved the poet Rumi’s quote about life coming in three stages - “raw, cooked, burned” - and he would have appreciated that I think there’s a fourth phase (as outlined in this previous blog post): “repeat.” Life is liminal on a constant repeat cycle.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the book:

  • “When we resist transition, we resist one or more of the three phases of its makeup. We may resist letting go of the old; we may resist the confusion of the in-between neutral zone state; or we may resist the uncertainties of making a risky new beginning.”
  • “The ending and new beginning are states that are characterized by doing something (letting go and making a new beginning), but the neutral zone is a time when it may seem that nothing is happening. While the other two phases of transition are often bracketed by events, the neutral zone is more like an uneventful gap in your lifetime.”
  • He quotes the French scientist Claude Bernard, “It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.” And, goes on to write that societal rites of passage help a community teach those in transition the new realities and why the unlearning is essential: “I had always dismissed tribal rituals as prerational magic, so it came as a shock to realize that they were better seen as a surprisingly sophisticated psycho-technology designed to move a personal across the gap between one stage of life and the next.”
  • He reviews the variety of precursing events that often lead to a full-on transition. Rather than lamenting these often-unwelcome surprises, he suggests these external circumstantial changes are what’s needed for your internal work with the critical question being, “What is it time for me to let go of?” “I have found that the best way to find meaning in an event or a situation is to regard it as though the event or situation were a person who was trying to get your attention.”
  • “Some people fight transition all the way and bewail their fate, while others come to recognize that letting go is not defeat - that it may, in fact, be the start of a whole new and rewarding phase of their lives. As the American writer Margaret Halsey wrote, ‘In some circumstances, the refusal to be defeated is a refusal to be educated.’”
  • “Life runs a perfect curriculum, and the tuition is modest. If you miss the offerings this year, you can catch them next year. Again and again, it offers a correspondence course in letting go: Introductory Letting Go, Intermediate Letting Go and Advanced Letting Go. Life does so not because what we are identifying with is bad, but because we are ready for something else, something further, something in some way deeper.”
  • “It is not the fact of being in transition that most people mind, but rather that they cannot place their experience of being in transition within any larger, meaningful context. Without such a context, the endings are for no reason, the beginnings open the door to nowhere, and the neutral zones extend end-to-end across an empty landscape.”
  • “The temptation to look for ways to protect the life we already have is especially strong in the middle years, when so much seems to depend on the position and the identity that we have established by the activities we’re engaged in and the roles we fill.”
  • The book includes a chapter entitled “Transition and Elderhood” that starts with this exquisite George Santayana quote, “Never have I enjoyed youth so thoroughly as I have in my old age...Nothing is inherently and invincibly young except spirit. And spirit can enter a human being perhaps better in the quiet of old age and dwell there more undisturbed than in the turmoil of adventure.” Bridges also writes about his transition into later life as one that moved from “maturing” to “growing” to “ripening.”
  • As a writer about to turn 60, I appreciate this particular paragraph at the end of the book, “As I prepared to write this book, I read through journals that I kept in my forties and fifties. I came away from those visits to my past with two impressions that may at first seem to have little to do with each other. The first is how long it took me to learn how to say what I knew; and the second is how long I lived unhappily under the gray sky of feeling misunderstood.”

“The trip becomes ‘a journey’ after you have lost your luggage.”

- Anonymous

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