Between the Swings

Think back to Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice in Wonderland.
Remember the crazy scene with the caterpillar?
The caterpillar says to Alice, “Who are you?”
And Alice replies rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present, –
. . . at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

It seems that Alice is having trouble adjusting to her changes in size.
One minute she’s three inches tall, the next she’s huge.
Very symbolic of the dramatic transitions that seem to be happening in many of our lives.
So many people are dealing with transitions – big transitions.
Career transitions, changes of address, marriage, divorce, birth, death, and on and on.

Something I’ve noticed about transition is that it is relative to the person experiencing it.
In other words, a person who has just lost their job might say to a friend, –
. . . “Well, you may have problems, but you still have your job.”
And that friend might reply, “I may have my job, but you’re the lucky one – you still have your marriage.”

But if we were to look deeper into all transition experiences, –
. . . we would find that no matter what the change is, –
. . . the basic experience is the same.
Every transition has three parts:
. . . There’s an ending, followed by a period of distress and confusion, –
. . . which then leads to a new beginning.
That is, unless you get stuck in the middle –
. . . between the swings –
. . . which happens to be the title of today’s message – Between the Swings.

Anyway, Alan Cohen refers to the changes that many of us are going through –
. . . as we’re asked to let go of our old life –
. . . before beginning a new one.
I’m sure every one in this room can remember a time when you left something –
. . . stopped something – moved out of something –
. . . or, perhaps something or someone was taken away.
Or, perhaps you went back and forth between decisions so many times –
. . . . . . that you finally got tired of the rat race and said, –
. . “That’s it – anything must be better than this treadmill – I’m outa here!”

And you found yourself leaving the life that had been familiar to you.
But like a circus performer swinging from a trapeze –
. . . you let go and found yourself hurtling through space in uncharted territory with no apparent safety net.
You look over your shoulder, –
. . . and see that the swing you left is too far behind – there’s no going back.

Ahead – in the distance – you see another trapeze bar, –
. . . representing the new life awaiting you.
It is swinging toward you, and there may even be someone hanging onto the swing with his hands outstretched.
But it’s still too far in the distance for you to grab on.

“So what do you do?
You fly through the air with the greatest of ease (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).
You may not fly very gracefully, but you keep on going.
Eventually you will find your next resting place; –
. . . the outstretched hands will find yours, –
. . . and you will get a grip on your new life.

The transition time between swings can be a difficult, –
. . . confusing and stressful time.
The degree of difficulty depends upon your attitude.
Some of you have chosen your transitions –
. . . and so you minimize the importance of the endings.
In fact, you may not want to think about the aspect of your life that just ended –
. . . because to acknowledge that an ending has taken place is painful –
. . . and it might seem like admitting that the transition was a mistake.

On the other hand, if you have been forced into a time of transition –
. . . and find yourself between the swings against your own will, –
. . . or unintentionally, –
. . . you may find it hard to admit that a new beginning is about to happen.
Either way, you may find yourself “in-between” –
. . . a place which seems very strange and confusing –
. . . not to mention insecure.

There’s a book by William Bridges called Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes,
. . . and in it he gives the example of a young woman who had just given birth to a new baby boy.
She was feeling very troubled, and angry, impatient to adjust to this new beginning.
But on closer inspection, it became obvious that the reason she was in distress –
. . . had more to do with the old life –
. . . that she was now called upon to release.
She talked about her life and her dreams of motherhood.
She and her husband had been married for two years before she got pregnant, and they had been very happy together.
Both of them had wanted children, but each of them was startled to find a fussy new infant so intrusive and demanding.
“We aren’t along together any more,” she said sadly.
“I really do love the baby, but the old freedom and easiness are gone. We can’t take off any longer whenever we please, or even live by our own schedules.”

You see, she tried to forget endings –
. . . and get on with the beginnings,
. . . but couldn’t avoid being confronted with the impact of an ending in her life.
“I never though of it this way,” she said, –
. . . “but now it seems to me that I’ve crossed some kind of threshold in my life, and there’s no going back.
“My old life is gone.
“How come nobody talks about that?
“They congratulate you on your new life, but I have to mourn the old life alone.”
And that’s what’s at the heart of it.
Transitions often seem painful –
. . . because between the swings you’re faced –
. . . with mourning the part of life you must let go of –
. . . as you fly through the air with something much different than “the greatest of ease.”
You just may feel, once again, like Alice –
. . . falling helplessly down the rabbit hole.

Not only did this young woman have to mourn giving up her old life, –
. . . but she felt shame at feeling sad or angry at what was supposed to be a “good thing.”

Let’s talk about mourning for a moment.
Mourning is the expression of grief or sorrow over a loss or an ending.
We don’t just grieve in response to a death –
. . . we grieve to a greater or lesser degree after any ending.
And when we seem to get caught between the swings, –
. . . suspended in mid-air – unable to move on into the new beginning –
. . . it just may be because we haven’t allowed ourselves to complete the grieving process –
. . . in response to the change we have experienced.

The grieving process consists of several stages –
. . . that you will move through every time you experience a change.
You may move through these feelings in two months, two weeks –
. . . two days – or two minutes –
. . . depending upon the severity of the transition –
. . . and, of course, depending upon whether or not the transition was your choice.

The stages of grief include “denial,” –
. . . or that attempt you might make to protect yourself from the sharp and severe shock of a complete ending.
Denial can be a healthy phase –
. . . when it helps you deal with what you have to do in the moment.
Denial is our way of setting aside the shock –
. . . so that we can keep living while we confront and cope with the details of our loss.
But healthy denial must yield to the next natural phase of grieving –
. . . once the details have been dealt with.

The next phase of grieving might be “protest,” –
. . . where you struggle against the inevitable realization that some part of your life is forever over.
Protest is natural if it is shared.
If you let yourself talk about how mad and hurt you are –
. . . especially to someone who will listen without getting into sympathy with you.

When you share emotional protest, it may give way to rage –
. . . even a desire to be violent against whatever seems to have caused this ending.
This is a temporary fury – sometimes aimed at innocent persons –
. . . even those who are trying their best to comfort you.
If you encounter this phase of the grieving process –
. . . it may be better to find some physical outlet for the expression of rage rather than be too hard on another person.
Banging, hitting, and kicking some inanimate object – or just screaming it out will help.
Or, physical exertion – exercise, walking, dancing, or one of the martial arts.

Once you allow yourself to pass through the denial, the anger, the protest, or perhaps even rage,
. . . the next natural phase is surrender.
This is a surrender often brought on by the emotional and physical drain –
. . . or fatigue caused by all the energy used in denial, protest and rage.

During this time of surrender, people sometimes experience cloudy thinking,
. . . and they turn to a kind of false hope that whatever seems to have ended can be saved after all; –
. . . that the loved one will return –
. . . or the marriage will be saved –
. . . or the job can be retrieved –
. . . or the friendship restored.

Whether or not a person passes through this particular phase, –
. . . most of us experience some disillusionment during the grieving process.
We may begin to question the meaning and value of living, –
. . . the existence of God, –
. . . and even the purpose of being born at all.

Another common phase in the grieving process is “acting out.”
 We all do this when we feel caught between the swings of an ending and a beginning.
We may try to numb our pain by getting lost in out work, our lost in our parenting, –
. . . or lost in a vigorous search for new love.
We may attempt to be too busy to hurt.
This, too, is natural – as well as healing – for a short time.
The trick to moving through the grieving process quickly, –
. . . is to not become “fixated” between swings.

The trick is to avoid letting this phase of the grieving process become “workaholism,” –
. . . or some other addictive over-reaction.
Just by knowing that the acting out phase –
. . . is something we may normally do in response to an ending, –
. . . we can let ourselves overdo for a short time.

But this phase, too, must yield to the realization that endings, –
. . . particularly physical death, –
. . . are final at the human level of experience.

“I can’t tell you exactly how it felt,” said one woman, –
. . . “but I can tell you that the finality of my divorce hit me like a brick. I just sort of looked off into space and thought – this is for real.”

The finality of loss by death of a loved one is so intense –
. . . that the mind can’t grasp the infinite complexities of the mystery of such an ending.
The brain may prefer despair to the struggle to find meaning.

The presence of a strong belief system is the only buffer against these emotional shocks.

What you need most at a time like this is an intact belief system.
Without such a belief system, you will flounder in a sea of false hope, –
. . . caught between the swings of the trapeze.
But if you are able to manifest a strong belief system –
. . . you can actually find some joy and happiness –
.. . . at the acceptance of endings as being as natural as beginnings.

And finally, as part of your grief, –
. . . you will begin the phase which we might refer to as the “settlement” phase.
This is when you have completed the grieving process, –
. . . and you can begin to talk freely about your loss.

And then you will be ready to grab on to the hands of the person reaching out from the trapeze swinging toward you.
You reach safety – and joy begins to emerge.

People who are faced with endings, –
. . . and have no trust or faith –
. . . will go hurtling through space – without a safety net –
. . . caught between the swings of the trapeze.
But for those of you who have a solid belief system –
. . . the faith and trust will kick in –
. . . and there will be a knowing –
. . . that God’s perfect timing will bring the other trapeze to you just in time.

We talk a lot about taking action – and seizing the moment –
. . . but some time you may be faced with a situation about which you can do nothing.
You might feel boxed in – and have no idea which direction to turn.
At times like this, you might act out of fear or panic.
Or you might do something because you think you have to do something.
The Buddha advised, “Don’t just do something – stand there.”
In other words, sometimes its more appropriate to do nothing.
Not out of avoidance or denial –
. . . but out of a wisdom that says, “Let’s get balanced here –
. . . let’s regroup, stand back and look at the bigger picture.
Let’s take time out to meditate, to ask for guidance, –
. . . to rest awhile and get focused.
Let’s take the time to fan the flame of trust and faith.

When you don’t see the way out – or the answer to your dilemma –
. . . it doesn’t mean there’s no answer.
It means that you do not see the answer.
So, you need to stop.
Stop and partner with God in preparation for the next step.

Have you ever thought about what it really means to partner with God?
It means that you have stopped trying to control the timing.
When you stop trying so hard, God’s timing takes over.

I truly believe that one of the most important things we can learn –
. . . on our journey into greater soul-esteem, or spiritual confidence –
. . . is how to gracefully deal with endings.
The truth is, endings are the first phase of the transition process –
. . . and a precondition of self-renewal.
They tend to scare us, so we try to avoid them.

“I don’t want to talk about the past,” says a newly married man who is talking to someone about his new second marriage.
“I’m only interested in thinking about the present and the future.”
Now at first glance, this might seem like the right idea –
. . . based upon what we teach in metaphysics.
Our motto is, get into the now.
Stay awake and aware in the present moment.
But here’s the catch.
Before you get into the present moment,
. . . it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve let go of the past.
Because is you don’t, your present will be nothing more than the recycled past that you haven’t yet let go of.
Sometimes we get to face the past, bring what troubles us up to a conscious level,
. . . and deal with it so that we can truly let go of the trapeze.
Endings must be dealt with if you are to move on to whatever comes next in your life.
The new growth cannot take root on ground still covered with the old, –
. . . and endings are the clearing process.

There’s a story that some of you may remember me telling before, –
. . . but it illustrates how we can think we’re in the present moment –
. . . but we’re using the present moment enmeshed in something we’re hanging on to as tenaciously as a puppy holds on to an old sock.

Once there were two monks who were traveling through the countryside during the rainy season.
Rounding a bend in the road, they found a muddy stream blocking their way.
Beside it stood a lovely woman dressed in flowing robes.
“Here,” said one of the monks to the woman.
“Let me carry you across the water.”
And he picked her up and carried her across.
Setting her down on the other side, he went along in silence with his fellow monk to the abbey on the hill.
It was perhaps two weeks later, when the other monk suddenly said,
. . . “I think you made an error the other day when you picked that woman up and carried her across the water.”
You know we aren’t supposed to have anything to do with women, –
. . . and you held one close to you!
You should not have done that.”
“How interesting,” said the other monk.
“I carried her across the water, and put her down on the other side.
You have been carrying her for two weeks.”

Many of you who have experienced confusion and distress about what to do next –
. . . think that it’s the new beginning that confuses you.
Consider the possibility that it is the ending which has not been clearly understood and appreciated.

If you haven’t let yourself grieve properly –
. . . because you haven’t let yourself die to your old life –
. . . you will have difficulty grabbing on to the next trapeze.

William Bridges calls that time between the swings the neutral zone.
He says that most people in the modern world think of transition as a kind of street-crossing procedure.
“One would be a fool to stay out there in the middle of the street any longer than was necessary, –
. . . so once you step off the curb, move on to the other side as fast as you can.
And whatever you do, don’t sit down on the center line to think things over!

No wonder we have so much difficulty with our trnasitions.
This viewpoint does not take into consideration the pain of an ending.
The only thing that we can think about –
. . . is that our distress may a sign that we shouldn’t have crossed the street in the first place.

We turn it into regret and remorse.
Instead of flying through the air with the greatest of ease,
. . . we struggle and flounder across what we perceive to be a scary place –
. . . and we distort and misunderstand the neutral zone experience –
. . . or the time spent between the swings.

During this time between the swings, –
. . . you may be called upon to stretch, to risk, to pioneer new, unfamiliar territory.
But you always have the choice to see the neutral zone as a fearful, uncomfortable place,
. . . or as an adventure.
However you view it, no one can give you a guarantee that things will turn out looking like they did before –
. . . or looking exactly like the way you expect them to.
Alan Cohen suggests that if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.

But what I want you to realize is that your partnership with God does come with a guarantee.
And the terms of that guarantee are that you agree to trust, –
. . . that you agree to follow your heart, to live your truth, and to love.
If you do that, you will free your mind up to notice the clues that will lead you to the right people, the right places, at the right time.
Don’t freak out between the swings.
The astronauts – during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after a space flight, –
. . . experience a period of time when they lose radio contact with ground control.
During this blackout they have to trust that they will recover the contact.
They expect this, and so they don’t become frightened during the momentary separation.

You, too, will recover your contact with your new beginning.
You will realize that the next trapeze is swinging toward you, –
. . . and God is ready to catch you and take you to safety.

Alan’s closing paragraph on this subject reminds us about what the psalmist said.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
“The journey through the valley seems frightening only because the light is being blocked. The light is there; it is just obscured from your view at the moment.
“The light will be there when you are ready to see it again.
Don’t worry, just keep flying and trust
“You will arrive at the mountaintop safe and whole.”

God Bless.