Transitions Begin with an Ending

A Summary of William Bridges by Todd Hunter

Marriage is the end of singleness; a promotion is the end of a former job-and the routines and relationships that went along with it. Transitions begin with an ending; this is why they stink, feel so bad. Transitions require genuine grief. You are not crazy-well you might be-but not for feeling the blues and blahs inherent in pursuing something that seems as exciting (why would I be depressed about that?) as your dream of a new life of faithful followership of Jesus and leadership in his name.

We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new-not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to the people and places that act as definers of who we are. Even positive changes (being accepted to the school of your choice or having a baby) produce these unexpected losses because to an extent that we seldom realize, we identify ourselves with the circumstances of our lives.

Endings involve disengagement; they break apart social ties. It is hard to imagine life and identity apart from these knowns. But, this is usually the path to real development (in contrast to mere tweaking).

Endings bring on dis-identification: In transition, we lose ways of self-definition. It feels like the end of me. We experience the feeling of "I'm not sure who I am any more". I was a __________ (vocation, role, etc.), but in this new reality I don't yet own an identity. No longer "being a young person" or "being near the person in power" can be source of panic. But, trying to hang on to old identities stand in the way of transformation and personal growth.

Disenchantment is also part of transitions. We carry around in us a picture of "the way things are"; an enchanted view. Once this is dis-enchanted, we are left, in a process like gestation or farming, to wait for something new to be born.

We tend to view personal growth as purely an additive process, one that means gaining stuff, never loss. But to grow and change, we must confront the part of our old reality that "was only in our head"-and lose it. The perfect spouse, child, job or church never did exist. We created them as an inner cast of characters and then looked for someone to play the parts.

These and other misperceptions are the "enchantments" that must be "dissed" or recognized as "sufficient for the old reality", but insufficient now. Maybe we really did need to believe that "people are always trustworthy", etc., because it protected us in our immaturity. But with real growth comes truer perception that can be tolerated with mature Christian peace. Dissing our enchantments is far better than switching spouses, rejecting children or destroying the career of a colleague.

Last, disorientation visits most people during transitions. The reality that is left behind in any ending was not just a mirage; some of it was real. To be out of that reality, but to have no clear sense of, or un-failing plan for, the future is disorienting. It leaves us feeling confused and empty, stuck or lost in a non-world. The familiar ways through which we structured our time and space are gone and nothing new has come forward to replace them. This is a meaningful, but un-enjoyable time.

During an ending, the desire for repetition of the old (in an effort to avoid the developmental thrust involved in transitions) is a key temptation to be avoided. It aborts the process of learning a new way of being in the world. Before we can find a new something, we must deal with a time of nothing.

No new time of life is possible without the death of the old season. To gain, you must first give up. An ending clears the ground for a new beginning. The ending of an outward situation thrusts us into a season in which we process its implications--this can seem like "hell" as we go down before we go up. We let go of an old way of being before picking up a new one. We then we begin to act-even when the tasks seem impossible--knowing that the Spirit will meet us "there"; in that place where we have run out of our own resources.

New Beginnings come after passing through The Neutral Zone

Bridges calls this time of nothing the neutral zone. It is the in-between time before the new beginning takes shape. The neutral zone and new beginning phases of transition are worthy of significant discussion.

As with all people after important life transitions, we are going to be different people when our transitions are over.

This is a time that seems "built-in" to the structure of transition. It is the germination time between an ending and the birth of a beginning. It is difficult for modern, fast-paced, technological people to embrace and value. For us, emptiness and aloneness only represent the absence of things. We try to replace missing elements as quickly as possible (thus the adage "on the rebound"). We have a difficult time seeing what is gained (perspective, the chance for personal transformation, etc.) during these times. To employ a metaphor, we want to get across the street as quickly as we can, we cannot fathom that there would be any usefulness in the middle of the street. However, it is interesting that though we have this innate suspicion, most people find that during a transition they need temporary isolation away from familiar distractions in order to think.

We must not be defensive about this apparently unproductive (other than intolerance, unproductiveness is perhaps the biggest societal sin one could commit!) timeout at turning points in our lives. The neutral zone is meant to be a moratorium from the conventional activity of our everyday existence. It is liminal: a gift-a space-for doing important inner business, the kind that leads to extraordinary kinds of personal and God-awareness.

In the neutral zone we can often wonder if we are going crazy or experiencing enlightenment as we unlearn old self-images and take on new ones. The old is now transparent (what it really was-- good and bad), but nothing new feels solid yet.

In the neutral zone we learn to surrender, to give in to the process through trusting God, inviting God to act. Though we fear this may lead to chaos, the chaos envisioned here is not a mess; it is like a primal state of pure energy--God's kind of energy--that leads to God's kind of creation. It is only from the perspective of the old form that chaos looks fearful-from any other perspective it looks like life in the making, soon to be shaped by new purpose and identity.

Here are some practical suggestions for finding meaning in the neutral zone-

  • Find a regular time and place to be alone.
  • Begin a log/journal of neutral zone experiences.
  • Write "an autobiography", a timeline of your past. Ask what it tells you about yourself (you may need some one to help you here) with reference to creating a new beginning.
  • Take this opportunity to discover what you really want. In the old situation we often felt boxed-in and perhaps saying, "if only I could, I would __________." Now that you are free the issue often turns to "if only I knew what I really wanted…"
  • Think of what would be unlived in your life if it ended today. There. It is all over. Your life is complete. Whatever you have done is the you that goes down in the record books and everything you might have done vanishes with the mind that considered it. Mentally write your own obituary. How do you feel about that past? What is unlived, but can be attempted in the new chapter of your life?

Making a Beginning

When launching a beginning, ask: "have I really moved through endings into the neutral zone and found there the beginning I now want to follow, or is this "beginning" a way of avoiding an ending or aborting the neutral-zone experience?"

It is good to remember that beginnings can be indirect and unimpressive; there are not always clear and conscious steps to take. You can often sense a beginning by an inner realignment with deep longings, a renewal of personal energy, an inner idea or the emergence of an external opportunity.

As much as we may wish to make to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so as though we were making the first step toward disaster. Everyone has a slightly different version of these anxieties and confusions, but in one way or another they all arise from the fear that real change destroys the old ways in which we established our security. (Here is an interesting thought: "when I hold something less tightly, I free myself too. The guard is a prisoner too, you know.")

Here is a "beginnings" to do list:

  • Stop "getting ready" and, best you can, act!
  • Picture in your mind that you have done it (the new thing). This is the opposite of point #5 above. You are now the person who does such a thing. Visualize it: not in some weird way, but what would it look like if it came out just right?
  • Now that you can see it, begin, step-by-step. But, resist the urge to so focus on results that you miss the process. This is an important protection from the thief of "fear of failure" and it minimizes our disappointment when things are slow. It also gives time and space for the inner you to keep up with the new external reality-job, house, marriage/spouse, new ministry, etc.


No new time of life is possible without the death of the old lifetime. To gain, you must first give up. An ending clears the ground for a new beginning. The ending of an outward situation thrusts us into a season in which we process its implications--this can seem like "hell" as we go down before we go up. We let go of an old way of being, and pick up a new one. Then we begin to act-even when the tasks seem impossible--knowing that the Spirit will meet us there, in that place where we have run out of our own resources.

Jesus said, "I will not leave you orphaned…the Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you…I'm leaving you sound and whole. That's my parting gift to you. Peace. I don't leave you the way you are used to being left-feeling abandoned, bereft. (Rather) "…trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I've conquered the world." (John 14:18ff; 16:33, The Message)

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on May 31, 2002