A Pattern to Count On

When life feels like it’s exploding out or imploding in, what does one do?

An old colleague of mine got in touch with me during one of those times in his life recently. He needed to tell me about what was currently disturbing his comfortable reality. It happened to be the disruption of a job, but it could have been one of health, or of a marriage. Disruption comes in various forms, but it breaks apart our sense of control, or more accurately, our illusion of control. It calls the question, and announces that the way things have been are not going to see us through to the morrow.

You know how that feels, right?

Early on in life, it can be the break-up in a relationship that you thought was “true love”. Think again.

It can come in the disruption of a life plan that you thought would be your path into the sunset.

It can be the end of a marriage, where the relational ties that had been frayed, are unraveling for good.

A job loss can prompt a career change and initiate a frantic search.

Or it may come with a gentle but nagging sense of unease with the way things are.

And, thankfully, it can emerge with a persistent longing for a freedom from one’s self-imposed corral. An invitation to run free.

Disruption comes in many forms, sometimes like a bolt of lightening, sometimes as a slow, approaching reality on our horizon, and sometimes from behind, unexpected.

If you have lived a bit of this thing called life, you know the reality of which I am speaking.

In speaking with my friend who was telling me of his disruption, I was reminded of a pattern that I wrote about in my doctoral work many moons ago. It’s a pattern that I think is woven into reality. For those of you who pull back from attribution such patterns to a divine being, you can think of it as a natural process, creative, if you will, that is at work in the nature we share.

For those of us who sense a spiritual reality behind that nature, we can claim that the process has been embedded by our Creator. And those who might claim Jesus as embodying that process in his very incarnated being, we would point to his story as a poignant and dramatic demonstration of a Christ “way” of being that we all share, knowingly or not.

I had grown up in a Christian home in the South, South of God, obviously. I knew all the stories, the Bible ones as well as the local gossip, including who did what and who’s doing who. But the important pattern of which I want to speak avoided me, or I avoided it, as I was growing up. Church, for me, had been another pool of socialization, from Sunday School in gender assigned classes, to youth choir rehearsal mixers, to secret parties held at clueless parents’ homes. Another place to learn or to be socialized.

It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral work that I finally “got” the pattern, or it got me. Confessionally, it had been there all along. I just missed it. Had my mind on other things. But it was through an anthropologist that I finally got it, it clicked.

I’m talking about the book by William Bridges, Transitions. Bridges had lost his job and began to study his own process of going through the change imposed on him. As a phenomenologist, he used van Gennep’s esoteric study of initiation rites in various tribes of folks. As he reframed it, he said it was a three-fold pattern. Endings, Neutral Zones, and New Beginnings. It’s a framework, a heuristic device, for helping you to understand where you are on the map of change. I have used it leading retreats for people on a spiritual journey. I have suggested it as a means for understanding with the persons I saw as a therapist. I have reminded, or “minded” members of my congregation of this key hermeneutical insight in finding one’s way. And I am currently employing it with the people that I coach in leadership.

Endings. Neutral zone. New beginnings.

Endings: It about a major change or shift in one’s reality or life structure. It is sometimes chosen, as one goes to college, gets married, or moves. But often, it is imposed. It is a forced ending, as a loved one dies, a job goes away, or life subjects you to an alteration. Recognizing the ending for what it is and what it means seems to be difficult for many of us, as we long to hang on to “the way things were”. Marking the ending of “what was” becomes the key for a healthy transition. I love the comedic twist of the Texas adage: When your horse dies, dismount!

Neutral Zone: It is characterized by a sense of disorientation. One’s identity, bestowed by role, is often shredded, leaving one with a sense of confusion. The structures that provided the container of one’s life which maintains the status quo has been busted. Everything feels like it ‘s out of the bag, and up for grabs. Rather than the controllable order we crave, we experience disorder. While it may feel like a vague time of dislocation, the Neutral Zone may prompt a profound sense of anxiety where one does not know where one is, nor where one is going. This can last “a spell”, a clinical term my grandmother used. One generally is uncomfortable in such a place and may lead to a premature closure, just to get beyond this “unpleasantness” as we say South of God. My favorite quip here is: Let’s do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong! Such a precipitous move usually is not smart.

New Beginnings: It offers a new structure, the promise of stability in what felt like the vortex of the Kansas twister in the Wizard of Oz. It is characterized by the energy of the birth of the New, the promise of a fresh start. The danger here is making sure that it is truly “new” and not merely a variation on an old, familiar theme. One is tempted to move quickly out of the transition, forgetting to take the “lessons learned” along. These lessons are called “wisdom” and should be remembered and memorialized in an appropriate way. I have no favorite saying for this other than an old admonition I remember: Lean in!

I have used this three-fold pattern in my own life work as well as in my professional work. It provides a map for the road ahead as well as where you are.

Jim Fowler and I used this as our model when we were trying to redesign the ground-breaking work of Carlyle Marney at Interpreter’s House. He would gather ministers from a diversity of traditions at a retreat center in North Carolina. The first week was spent telling your story within a group of fellow travelers. Marney appropriately called it “throwing up”. He also quipped that all people had a story, and that a few knew how to tell it well. Most, not so much.

The second week was spent being introduced to some new way of thinking about the world. Marney would invite leading thinkers to come share what they had learned in order to prompt the imagination of the participants. He would also seed the clouds by dropping tidbits of Marneyisms into the crucible of this sacred time and space.

The third week was about planning how one was going to reenter the place from which one came. It was to be a courageous plan but steeped in practical actions that would make for a healthy reentry. People I have interviewed say the three weeks of Interpreter’s House was life-changing.

Fowler and I took the basic idea of a gathering place, but recognized that we did not have the “genius” of Marney’s being at our disposal. Rather than trying to manage the egos of thirty ministers in a single group, a task only the gargantuan persona of Marney could pull off, we placed them in groups of four. We condensed our program to a single week, and concentrated the time, using the small group to gain more “air time” for each participant. And we kept the work in tension between individual reflection that used journaling and the work one would do within the small group.

Initially, we though we would use Fowler’s Stages of Faith to unlock the mystery and messiness of each participant’s life. However, we found it unwieldy and a bit obtuse for casual consumption. We resorted to my use of Bridges’ accessible three-fold pattern. But we framed it in the Exodus narrative, of the Hebrew people ending their time of slavery in Egypt, of transitioning into a new freedom as they wandered in the wilderness, and finally, their entrance across the river into the Promised Land. It was the rich narrative that provided the backdrop for the Christian Easter experience of the Easter Vigil. We pointed to the three-fold pattern within the life of Jesus: Crucifixion-Holy SaturdayResurrection as the Paschal paradigm. This proved to be a powerful way for our participants to reflect upon their own lives, where they were currently, and how they got there.

The format proved fruitful and was eventually published and used within the Methodist tribe, not only for clergy but for laity as well. I still use it when working with the clergy I am coaching as it gives a good map for the journey, helping persons to see their way through the dark.

Is the pattern suggestive for you? Are you at an Ending, painful, promising, or both?

Does it feel like you are wandering, in the wilderness or the desert? Do you feel like you are going in circles, or caught in a fog?

Or are you entering a new time of life, a new chapter that might be both exciting and scary? How are you making this new beginning in this odd time of pandemic?

I am hoping this pattern that I am pointing out is helpful as you reflect on where you are as well as where you are going. It’s an ancient pattern that puts words to our common experience, and allows us to talk together about our journey.

It might be worth taking some time to reflect and record your insights. Maybe even share it with someone you trust. Or better yet, share it with someone who has no agenda or investment in your life to help you dig a little deeper.

Where are you in your journey, your unique story?

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