Chapter 12: The Only Constant is Change
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another. (Anatole France)
The news hit him like a locomotive train. Trevor was flattened. He had worked for the company for over fifteen years. Of course there had been rumours amongst the staff about the state of the finances, but no one ever seriously entertained the idea that they might lose their job. So when Trevor and half a dozen other employees were called in to the boss’s office, his words left them dumbstruck.
For the next few days Trevor found it difficult to focus on anything. Money wasn’t the immediate problem – it would be six weeks before his job was officially history, and then he had four months of redundancy pay. But somehow the news had disoriented him. Trevor had never intended leaving the company. He’d enjoyed the job and felt challenged by it. And now he just couldn’t think what to do. For a whole week he couldn’t even bring himself to tell his wife what had happened. On top of everything else, he was experiencing a frightening loss of motivation. He could barely bring himself to do even the most automatic of duties.
Over the next two or three weeks Trevor’s workmates noticed that he had become increasingly distant from the everyday chatter of the office. Sometimes irritable, other times just not quite there, Trevor found himself in a surreal state – almost as if he was suspended above the office in a kind of no-man’s land – looking on but not really a part of things.
Of course there were moments of anger too. Particularly at home in his discussions with Pat. She felt cheated, betrayed by the company, and she urged Trevor to be more aggressive in his final dealings with them. She’d always relied on Trevor’s income. He was the provider for the family. He was the strong one. When she discovered he’d kept it to himself for a whole week, at first she felt hurt. Then, as Trevor’s disorientation sank deeper, she realised she needed to take the supporting role. What should she do? Would she have to go out and find paid work? What would other people think?
Gradually Trevor began to function again. As the days passed and the inevitability settled in, he tried to focus on the “what’s next?” question. Almost imperceptibly at first, but with growing determination, he moved on. While he would later acknowledge that he underestimated the level of grief he would experience, Trevor’s primary concern in his last couple of weeks at the office was what was ahead, not behind.
It was at this point that a conversation with a close friend touched a chord, and gave Trevor the confidence to resist jumping into the first job that came his way. Mark mentioned how critical it was to take time – to process the options, and to discover what would be the most fulfilling way to use his resources in the next season of his life.
Looking back, Trevor realised that this was the best advice he could have heard. He was 43 years old and there were a multitude of considerations both he and Pat had to work through – among them issues of “fit”, life-stage and family. The redundancy money gave them the freedom to take their time and, amongst all the disorientation and grief, to embark on a new journey of discovery, finding where they could serve best. The end result, some twelve months later, was a situation very different from their previous season – one that they couldn’t have imagined and certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to pursue if it weren’t for the redundancy. A year later, Trevor and Pat were able to see how God had led them by his providence in quite remarkable ways.
Trevor’s situation is far from unique. In the Western world the structure of career is changing quickly. The stereotype of a person employed in one job for his/her working life no longer applies. These days people are likely to change careers several times in their lifetime. Not only that, but the concept of holding down one 40-hour-a-week job is in danger of extinction. The reality is that many people now have more than one paid job – either in the form of several part-time ones or by virtue of contracting out their services rather than being employed by a specific company. The variations from one person to another are immense.
In the midst of such rapid change, it’s imperative that we understand how best to deal with transitions, for the way we navigate such unchartered waters will have a major bearing on our capacity to develop a SoulPurpose. All changes, even those that we eagerly look forward to, tend to set off a chain reaction inside each of us. Knowing what we are likely to encounter in a time of transition will help us make it a growing experience.
Transitions come in many shapes and sizes. Some are a change in location: moving house, town or even country. Some are a change in role: a student takes up employment, a mother leaves paid work to care for a child, a father retires, an adult son takes up the task of caring for a parent who once cared for him.
Some transitions are ones we plan and initiate, such as getting married, having a child, or changing jobs to gain a more desirable position. Others come totally from left field, hitting us like a crunching, winding tackle. A loved one dies suddenly. We are made redundant. A crisis at our job jolts us into seeing how desperately unhappy we are in what we are doing. The shocks can be pleasant ones too: like receiving an offer of a new job without even looking for one! Or surprises that bring mixed and conflicting feelings: an unplanned pregnancy, or a job shift to another place.
Sometimes maturity and personal growth cause the transition. The skills we’ve developed have become too restricted by the job we do. Or the way we related to people in the past is no longer satisfying, and we need to discover new, more effective ways. Or our old expression of faith no longer matches the way our spiritual understanding has grown.
Transitions can result from burnout (stress, overwork, a poorly managed work/rest ratio); rust-out (boredom and lack of challenge) or being kicked-out (redundancy, bankruptcy, or being squeezed out by others). Life crises such as the death of a parent, partner, child or sibling can be the catalyst for a transition, as can the realisation that what we are doing doesn’t really fit who we are.
Regardless of what type of change we face, there is the potential for good and bad. Transitions are disorienting. It’s easy to lose our bearings and our focus on SoulPurpose. Things are out of control – or at least they feel that way. Much loss and grief may be involved. However, with such danger comes a wonderful potential for new insights, new beginnings, and new ways of serving.
William Bridges, a consultant and writer, notes three major stages in a transition.  First there is the leaving/loss.
If it is a change we have a choice about, it begins with growing discontent over our situation. This is the fuel that gets us going, forcing us to make a change. (Of course sometimes we try to ignore this discontent – at least for a while.)
The leaving stage is also marked by disengagement from our current state. This enables us to take a more objective view and begin backing off.
A side-effect of this process, according to Bridges, is disorientation. In fact, he suggests that there may be a frightening loss of motivation and direction, as we begin to question whether our life is really going anywhere.
A further part of the leaving process is the dis-identification and loss that results from leaving a particular role, place or group. It’s often scary to see how much our identity and the way we define ourselves is so wrapped up in the role or situation we are leaving.
Disenchantment, states Bridges, is an inevitable result of the leaving process – in which we begin to discover that things were not as they seemed. We need to move on, though we are unsure what to.
This leads us into a neutral zone where disorientation becomes the major feature. Disengaged from what we were previously committed to, this may be a time of reflection. We may appear unavailable or distant to others. The cause of this is our disengagement and the need for time to ponder. In the midst of it all we may well have doubts about where God is in this, and will certainly experience a degree of discomfort as we seek to integrate and make sense of the change. Grief at our loss will also have its impact.
Bridges warns that though we may wish to rush through this part of the transition, there are grave dangers in doing so. For if we give it the time required, eventually we discover we’re in a land of new beginnings, with fresh vision, energy and a renewed direction. A degree of anxiety and apprehension may persist for some – even if we sense the new possibilities. But our cold feet will eventually grow warm. Hopefully it will not be long before we are able to look back and see the new possibilities that have arisen from our time of anxiety.
William Bridges, Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1980).
Caple is another writer who has thought a great deal about transitions, particularly as they relate to changing our career. He suggests that we are in fact, continually undergoing a transition process – a kind of Career Cycle.
Caple notes the following parts of the cycle:
Discontent – with what we are doing.
Exploration – beginning to seek out possibilities.
Commitment to change – letting go of the past and setting sail for some (often unknown) future.
Renewal – a re-discovered sense of well-being and confidence. The traveller is refreshed and experiences increased energy.
Consolidation – coming back to reality, time to settle down a little.
Recommitment – acknowledging completion of the whole process, and dedicating ourselves to the tasks ahead.
Discontent … and so it goes on.
Though both Bridges and Caple identify valuable steps along the path of transition, neither would suggest that every change includes every step. As you adapt this information for your own life, remember that each situation differs. A time of transition for you may include some of these stages, and omit some. Occasionally all may be present.
Caple’s suggestion – that transitions, particularly those relating to occupations, may have a cyclical nature – is consistent with the concept of seasons/times that Ecclesiastes writes about:
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot…
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh…
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak….” (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff.)
“A time” – the phrase carries with it a sense of divine appointment. God intends for us to have times of activity and of rest, times in our lives of great energy, of accomplishment, but also times when we pull back for a period of replenishment, to reflect on what has happened and to prepare and envision the future. There are seasons in our lives for various things, and rhythms of living under God’s grace.
As we noted in the previous chapter, in one sense the Bible can be viewed as a series of crises and transitions. And the dominant one in the Old Testament – at least as far as the Jewish people are concerned – is the exodus of Israel from Egypt which brings them eventually to settle in the Promised Land.
This is a powerful example of the transition of a whole people, and of God’s dealings with them. First there is a call to change. Initially it is muted, but the increasingly harsh treatment by the Egyptians stirs up discontent among the Israelites over their present situation. A longing for something more arises. God provides a leader to channel the rising voices into a movement demanding change.
Other elements of the story illustrate many of the steps along the transition process. There is the pull of the status quo, trying to keep the people from change (Pharoah’s determination: “I will not let you go”). Passover night represents the reaching of a commitment to change, and the crossing of the Red Sea represents the point of no return. They then enter the vacillating experience of the neutral zone – in the desert, where doubts arise about God’s provision, questions surface, complaints are voiced. (“We want to go back to Egypt!”)
Then comes the pull of new beginnings –the Promised Land is close. But there is deep anxiety and apprehension about the challenges that lie ahead, with reports from the spies about giants in the land (“What kind of promised land is this?”). Their cold feet lead them back into the wilderness, wandering aimlessly (so it seems) for forty years.
However, eventually the new beginnings can be grasped again. There is fresh energy and vision. Crossing the Jordan, taking the cities and the land, settling down and establishing their life as a free people under God – all this takes time. But it happens. Israel enters a new season together as the people of God. The transition is finally complete.
We would all like our times of transition to be smooth and speedy. Like turning right at a T-intersection. A decisive, definite and deliberate change in direction. Over quickly, and on to new sights...
Some may indeed be like that but most are, as the word “transition” implies, a process or period of evolution. A change of season is like driving round a slowly turning bend. It takes time (though generally not as long as the forty years in the wilderness!). It can also be very frustrating because not until we are right around the corner do we see what’s up ahead.
Like so many things in life, a transition is much easier to view in retrospect. The lack of vision and direction we experience is eventually forgotten as we move forward into new territory. Looking back we discover God’s hand at work – when all we could see in the midst of it was confusion.
J. Caple, Career cycles: A guidebook to success in the passages and challenges of your work life (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983).
So how can we best handle the uncertainty of change?
Just knowing that most transitions comprise the three different experiences (endings, a neutral zone, and beginnings) is helpful and reassuring. However here are some other suggestions for the journey. We’ve developed them from William Bridges’ checklist.
We can cope with only so much change and uncertainty at any one time. That’s why it may help to keep some structures and routines unchanged during the transition. This might be a regular meeting with a group of friends, family celebrations, a routine of some kind as simple as going for a walk each day, and so on.
There are times when the longing for security beckons the traveller to turn back to the familiar, or to race ahead – seizing hold of any kind of future that appears to offer the same sense of security. This is a time when the ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty becomes important.
Remember that you are on a well-trodden road. The temptation to make things happen is a normal experience in transitions. Don’t turn back just because of the discomfort associated with leaving the familiar. Likewise be wary of running ahead in an attempt to feel better. A time of reflection allows you to gain from the past before making decisions that will affect the future … whereas running ahead may propel you into a situation similar to the one you’re leaving, just because it feels familiar or secure.
The transition experience is not normally a comfortable one! As a result, you may easily misdiagnose change as something wrong or disturbing. It’s easy to equate stability and security with “godliness”. But when you leave behind old ways of doing things and embrace new ones ... suddenly the ground feels shaky!
Be aware too that the changes you are experiencing may create some confusion for those closest to you. They are accustomed to certain ways of relating to you. As you change, so will your responses. Family and friends need to learn to adjust to this. At first it may cause them understandable discomfort.
Your time of transition may even uncover some friendships that are not strong enough to handle growth. Remember that your change will affect those around you. Be prepared for (and understanding of) their reactions, which may include hurt, resentment and rejection. Other relationships may grow stronger through your transition.
Some insects make their great leap of growth during the time between the shedding of their former skin and the growing of a newer larger one. At this time of transition they are particularly vulnerable to predators. In the same way, our times of transition give us great potential for growth. But they are also times of vulnerability. Being aware of this will help you be kind and patient with yourself.
Give yourself space to work through the changes at a pace that is manageable for you. This includes practical things like sleep, diet, fresh air, exercise, rest and recreation … and time by yourself.
It’s easy to fool yourself into change by stacking the positives against the negatives. In the same way you can resist change by piling up the negatives against the positives! So be honest and try to think beyond the obvious pros and cons.
If the change is something you particularly desire, then explore the potential negatives. That way you’re less likely to be ambushed by unanticipated moments of grief. (Grief is inevitable when any ending occurs.) If the change has not been voluntary, try to see beyond the obvious disadvantages to the possible opportunities. This may not be possible at first, but should become so with time. Remember Trevor and Pat in our story at the beginning of this chapter. You will adjust.
We all need a listening ear. Find someone who is prepared just to listen – and to cheer you on as you make your own discoveries. Such a friend may also help you see the costs and benefits of changes that you find hard to see. When you are in the midst of transition you can become embroiled in the day-to-day details of just getting through, while others who know you (but who are less involved) can help by reminding you of the big picture. The support of encouraging friends who can pray and listen as you go through uncharted territory is beyond reckoning!
Some people make changes to move away from a difficult situation or relationship … only to walk into a carbon copy further down the track. Taking the time to carefully think it all through can help avoid this risk. Here again wise counsel from a trusted friend or counsellor/minister/careers advisor can help you be honest with yourself. Is the new beginning just a replay of an old scenario, or a genuine new start?
Choose a transition you have experienced in the past five years, and think through the following questions. (Remember that every transition is unique and the models suggested by Bridges and Caple aren’t intended to be comprehensive or prescriptive in any way. If parts of their models don’t fit your experience, that’s fine!)
What were the causes of this transition?
Did you instigate it or was it the result of external circumstances?
What aspects of the process identified by Bridges and/or Caple occurred in your transition?
Looking back, in what ways was God at work in the change that took place? What leads you to believe this?
In what ways has the transition brought new beginnings to your life? (Think particularly here of Connection, Fit, Service, Balance and Encouragement – see chapter one.)
What would you do differently if you were to go through the same transition again?
Look back at the time line you constructed in chapter ten. Now add to it times of transition in your life that were not simply normal development and maturing. For each transition choose a title which describes the main learning the situation brought you. Mark the transitions which you feel you’ve not yet come to terms with. These are starting points for prayer, and possibly helpful if you decide you would like to talk through the issues with someone you trust.
In what ways can you identify “seasons” in your life up to this point? What were some of the key features of each of these seasons? Think here of ways the seasons stretched and grew you, how your faith was changed, what you achieved, etc.
Think about your current season/time. Are any of the lines of Ecclesiastes 3 especially relevant to where you’re currently at?
Select for group sharing one or more of the four questions in the exercise above. Then in your group session allow members the opportunity to explain their experience. Offer to each person the support and assistance of the group as you help him/her understand more fully the lessons learned and the transitions made.
Question for further discussion: What are some of the main reasons transitions happen? Which reasons are largely external and which ones are internal?
William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Addison-Wesley, 1980)
William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Addison-Wesley, 1991)
J. Caple, Career Cycles: A guidebook to success in the passages and challenges of your work life (Prentice Hill, 1983)
Gail Sheehy, Pathfinders: Overcoming the Crises of Adult Life and Finding Your Own Path to Well-Being (Bantam, 1981)
“Love and Work: a transition checklist” in Bridges’ book, Transitions.