How to Make Good Life Transitions

How do we let go of the past and embrace our present opportunities? The key is learning to make good life transitions.

We all will experience many changes in our lives: leaving home, marriage, having children, watching our children grow up and leave home, moves to new places, retirement, new jobs, deaths. How will we navigate these many changes?

For those looking for help in making good transitions, I would recommend William Bridges’ Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Bridges provides a helpful framework for thinking about how to make good transitions. He argues that moving forward consists of three elements: saying “goodbye”, waiting, and saying “hello” (his terms are an ending, the neutral zone, and a new beginning). Let me explain each element.

Bridges makes a distinction between the actual events and our ability to accept them and embrace them in our hearts and minds. Saying “good-bye” is not the actual change, i.e., the move, the lost job, or the death. It is the point when we come to accept the change in our hearts and minds. For example, we may move somewhere new, but a “transition” is the process of coming to accept living in the new place.

All societies have recognized the importance of saying “good-bye” in their funeral rites. Funerals are a way of saying “good-bye” to a loved one. In our society, we often rush through it, but the wisdom of the ancients recognized a lengthy time of mourning. We also often miss that other changes require a “good-bye” like growing up, retirement, moves to new places, and different seasons of life.

The second stage in a good transition is waiting. In between the “good-bye” and the “hello” is a waiting stage. This is a time when the old is gone but the new has not yet fully formed. A good example of this is the death of a spouse. An old way of life has died with the spouse, but what the new way of life will be is not immediately clear. There is a time of waiting. Retirement is often also like that. For years, you have had a rhythm of going to work. Now, you don’t know what you are going to do. Before the new pattern emerges, you must walk through the wilderness of waiting. This can be hard.

The third stage is saying “hello.” This is the moment when we embrace the new reality. After waiting for a time, we embrace the new reality in our hearts and minds. It could occur while you are sitting on your porch and all of a sudden thinking, “This is my home now.” It could be a flash of insight that gives you a vision for a new future. It could be a decision to go back to school to begin a new career.

Let me give an example from my own life. When I came to my current church, the church had faced a hard change from a large building in town to renting a small facility part-time. They had also lost leadership. We needed a vision for what life as a church would look like in our new situation.

About a year and a half later, I was thinking deeply about the organization of the church, and I came to a realization: I didn’t need to. We had found the new pattern already. I had to make the transition away from crisis to what I might call normal church life. It was a mental transition, and it took place one day while I was walking in a flash of insight. Later, my wife and I marked this transition with a party celebrating what I called “The end of the beginning.”

Adapting to changes is rarely easy, but it is a necessary part of flourishing in this life of changes. If we can recognize ahead of time that transitions are a process of saying “good-bye” to an old reality and “hello” to a new and that they take time, we will be much better equipped to embrace the future God has for us when the next big change comes.


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