Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.
— Isaac Asimov
Anyone on a path of discovery and growth is familiar with the unceasing process of transition. As to be expected, change accompanies psychological and spiritual exploration. Additionally, celebratory and painful milestones also catalyze transition. Giving birth, loss of a loved one, academic and vocational achievements, menopause, marriage, and divorce are a result of, and lead to deeper psychological and spiritual actualization. Ergo, letting go of what was, along with fixed notions of ‘how things ought to be’ so as to enter a new phase of life, is an inevitable fate.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung explained that as we break down our identity and reveal the aspects of the self that have been denied and repressed, “we take the step into the afternoon of life; worst still, we take this step with the false assumptions that our truths and ideals will serve us as before. But we cannot live the afternoons of life according to the programme of life’s morning for what was great in the morning will be little in the evening, and what in the morning was true will in the evening have become a lie.”
Jung goes on to explain that this breaking down of the personality affords us an opportunity for reintegration. The personality, oppressed by an obsolete persona breaks down to shed old patterns and ways of being. The reality one knew is mourned, so as to make room for a life more resonant with who one is becoming. Through this death new life emerges. This space between death and rebirth is the ‘troublesome’ place of limbo that Isaac Asimov refers to. Indeed, this time of identity transition will, of necessity feel greatly confusing and conflictual. As previously held beliefs and perceptions are no longer viable and a new way of being in the world has not yet formed, one’s sense of grounding and certainty is put to the test.
Carol Pearson, author of “The Hero Within”, wrote that the archetypal Innocent resides in ‘Paradise’; a euphemism for an infantile state of egocentric gratification. Pearson continues that eventually disillusionment with the reality of life precipitates the Innocent’s ‘fall’. Here the Innocent transitions into the archetypal Orphan, who is beset by the daunting task of embarking on a heroic journey. Pearson contends, “our lives will be transformed as we let go and trust our new directions, however fearful we may be about the unknown and however much grieving we may need to do about what we leave behind.” She goes on to assert that the Orphan’s ability to break through the duality of life as paradise or life as suffering is what allows us to transition through stages of growth. When the Orphan accepts that suffering ultimately fuels growth and change, s/he paradoxically awakens to the realization that paradise was a stultifying place of captivity to be set free from.
Similar to Jung and Pearson, the ‘theory of positive disintegration’, created by psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski, views psychological tension and anxiety as necessary for growth. Dąbrowski contends that people who resist going through positive disintegration remain stuck in a state of “primary integration”. The person locked into a state of primary integration is motivated by biological impulses, convention and societal mores. Polarization in this rote state of conformity impedes the necessary crisis/disintegration which would catalyze a potentially transformative shift.
The continuum of transition is a profound testing ground. Discomfort, stagnation, and paralysis may halt transition. Attempts to over-strive and opt for a spiritual bypass can also hinder successful passage. Staying the course is challenging. Assimilating the myriad feelings aroused by leaving behind the routine and stability of what is predictable and known requires trust. It is with that trust we are able to experience what poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”