"Accept what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be"
If you think about any time in your life when you were catalyzed to change you had to let go of the life you knew before. Maybe it was a graduation, a breakup, a job change, moving out, getting married, falling ill, having children, or emptying the nest.
If you really think about all these transitions, even the happy ones, a death occurs. Your former life is dying. Who you were before becoming a parent, your life before cancer, your life before your job loss, that stability you had in that comfort zone of your former identity is no longer there to hold onto.
Author Mary Karr has said “If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There's an initial uprush of relief at first, then for me, anyway- a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world works are buried, yet my new ones aren't yet operational.There's been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.”
It is like the chrysalis, not yet a butterfly, and no longer the caterpillar. In between worlds from shedding it’s old skin while still discovering who it will become.
I remember during the year of my wedding I felt like my emotions were all over the place. At first I felt crazy, why was I so sensitive, irritable and teary? My mother would call to check in on me and wonder why I was so distressed, “It’s a happy occasion!” She would try and reassure me. But I knew there was something deeper at play. It was when I started acquainting myself with Joseph Campbell and the “Hero’s Journey” that I learned I was stepping through a threshold. I was crossing the line of who I was before as an untethered albeit committed woman, to a soon to be married one. So even the happy events of our lives like getting married, being pregnant, moving to a new home, or starting a new job is accompanied by a mix of dread and celebration. We need to learn how to feel both at the same time.
Instead of acknowledging that loss is a part of life, we’re so quick to bypass it. We’ve been trained in ‘getting over it’ to silver line it, sugar coat it and pretend we’re fine when we’re not. We may not want to identify as the widow, the cancer patient, or the currently unemployed. We might hide out of shame or try and fight our new reality because we’re afraid of admitting that we are no longer who we once were.
In our culture we’ve been told to focus on the positive, get back into the dating game, get back into the job market, force ourselves out of bed, push through to the next stage, focus on the celebration without staying too long in any feelings of confusion, loss, anger, sadness, fear, or disappointment that shadows every transition. We’re afraid that if we really let ourselves feel all of it we might just fall apart.
We resist what is because we’re afraid if we really accepted our situation, it might never change. We fear that the sadness would be too overwhelming, the loneliness would break our hearts. But what if acceptance doesn’t mean resignation? It just means accepting the reality of what is, as it is. It means choosing to be in the present moment, not what once was or the hopes of what could be, because the present is the only thing that’s true.
We don’t like the feeling of the liminal space, the space between worlds. We want to know what’s next. We like having the answers instead of being in the space of the questions. This place in between what was and what will be might feel scary and confusing because it is unknown.
Remind yourself you have been here before. In every transition point in your life, the next step felt scary. You didn’t know what puberty would be like, or your first day of school, or what you wanted to study, you may not have known if you’d ever find love, if you could survive loss, or if your body would ever heal- but then somehow you managed to get onto the other side of the unknown. You passed over that threshold with new gifts and learnings.
The truth is it’s perfectly normal to feel scared, confused, sad or afraid of what you don’t yet know. It’s just how our brains are designed, to stay in the comfortable places we know so well even when we’ve outgrown them.
When we stop trying to fix or change or deny our loss, we can be transformed by the powerful healing balm of truth. It restores our integrity and our wholeness. When we stop pushing down our emotions we can start listening to them instead, and befriend what simply wants our attention and our compassion.
I was talking to a client recently who was having a hard time knowing how to celebrate her upcoming birthday. Unfortunately that was also the day her best friend had passed away. While she used to love birthdays, she began to dread this day. She didn’t want to celebrate- how could she when her friend was no longer here? It reminded me of this story that I shared with her.
It is a Jewish teaching that comes from Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha. It was said that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one note he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.
I believe that how we live fully is a measure of how we hold both.
I told her that your celebration of life, does not take away from the loss you feel. You can hold both simultaneously. Every new beginning has an ending, and with that comes a loss. We need to learn how to be in the spaces of the unknown, the spaces of the paradox. How we are but dust and ashes, a little speck in the vast universe and at the same time hold that the universe was made just for us. That we are only matter, and that we greatly matter.