Being in limbo is an interesting condition. It seems like we should do everything possible to get meaning back in our lives, and in the previous articles I gave some strategies for doing that. Hopefully you have achieved some comfort level with knowing there is a way forward. I've been in limbo several times, and most people achieve this state regularly in their lives during periods of change.
Hopefully with some comfort level with being in limbo, we can talk about some advantages of being there. We should make the most of being in limbo. What it means is either we have achieved some spiritual growth in our lives and are ready for new challenges, or life has thrown change our way and we're going to have a new adventure, ready or not.
Let's deal with the first situation first: we have achieved spiritual growth. There should be a merit badge to honor this one. On an Inc.com article about busines growth strategies, there is a picture of a goldfish in a too-small bowl. Print it and paste it on your computer to remind you that growth is part of life, and when we outgrow our environment we need to enlarge it.
There are three aspects of using being in limbo that will help us better find meaning:
1. Limbo is a place of deconstruction. Note, deconstruction is not destruction. Deconstruction examines things to their core. It simply means that we look at what has been motivating us, or we have been chasing, and determine if it is really relevant. We try to get to the core of what really is relevant about our motivations. To use religious imagery, it is a place of clearing away, or pruning, or a refining fire. This process helps integration of our beliefs.
Limbo is a place where we "integrate" our past and come to new conclusions. To do that, it can be very helpful to reflect on our past. In working with people to write their life stories, I partly use a question and answer form. Basically what it involves is reviewing the people who have been influential in your life, and the experiences that have affected the course of your life. You write down the negative and positive characteristics they gave you, and what you learned from this experience. Just jot down bullet points. Then fully reconsidered your past, and then write down why you are at the point you are now.
This is a process that takes time - revelations about ourselves may come in a flash, or over a period of weeks to years. Consider the way your brain works. It is thought by scientists that during your sleep time your brain integrates new information and experiences, and sheds disused neural pathways. We mimic what the brain does, but at a much higher level. Hopefully through this process you will understand yourself more fully, not repeat the past, and be able to more critically look at your future.
2. Limbo is a place of trying new things and exploration. Seeing the future is not like seeing the past, which is filled with many experiences and past motivations and past meaning. The present is where we are, a place of having grown, but paused. The future... is potential. What makes the future so difficult to see is that it is not filled with concrete things like the past, not even a shadowy form.
"Potential" means that it could be anything. So, while God may have a future slated for us, it is up to us to discover it. This means exploring our interests and trying new things. Some of this can be done through reading and watching documentaries. Some has to be experienced. The greater experience of many who go on sabbaticals and walk on the beach is that they return having learned nothing new. Trying new things is key to finding what we want.
3. Limbo is a place of reconstruction. We understand what relevant experiences came from our past and how they altered us. We look at the new beliefs and experiences we are trying.
4. Pray about it. Always seek guidance from God. God sees our future with a different perspective. He knows what it takes to make us what we need to be for our future. While the broad goals may be similar, it might not be the right time, or some other thing might be important to our development. God opens and closes doors.
Examples of change
We outgrow our current places in life and need to be somewhere where we can grow and contribute. Sometimes we feel we could do much more, and we get stale in the positions we are in. Most of us want to be working at our potential and trying to grow even more in our capabilities. We want opportunities that allow us to contribute, work at our potential, and grow. This often requires some type of change.
For example, I was considering whether or not to give this One Spirit Resources Web site a larger mission. I outlined the new mission I was thinking about and the steps to get there, and was excited about the plan. I prayed about it. The next morning I awoke feeling very inadequate to that mission - like we all usually do in the face of doing something larger. When I looked in my email that morning I had an inspirational message from the Hour of Power daily devotion on that very subject. So, make the plan that you can be excited about, and then pray and let God direct.
Change is usually difficult, and I have changed churches several times. I attended one church for some time, and after a while I noticed that the pastor's sermons and his comments to people often had this "I know something about you" characteristic. It seemed to be one of those atmospheres where little things got reported to the "authority figure" of the church. I'm confident enough so that it didn't ruffle my feathers, but the atmosphere helped me realize this wasn't the right church. I announced I was visiting other churches - I earnestly wanted to know their perspectives. I was written off as a heretic.
At another church, a new young pastor moved in with wife and a young child. It was an immediate culture clash. The pastor seemed to be a little too lenient in the discipline of their two-year old. Huh? The old-timers complained long and loud. It was made known that the people who ran the church weren't comfortable with him. I realized he was in a no-win situation. Thankfully he went to a new church in a more metropolitan area and did well. I had little choice but to stay at the time - they were licensing me for ministry. We can't always just pull up stakes and leave. Sometimes you have to realize that you don't agree with everything, and stick it out for a while.
Our lives often prepare us for a new role. For example, in working with a church on Transformation, one of my main concerns was managing change so that it was not destructive (was somewhat "deconstructive" to get to the vital values), had the best chance of avoiding obstacles that encourage people to resist change, and had the best attributes or methods that help people embrace change. What helped prepare me for this was a background in psychology and counseling, and I had worked with attitude change, and with corporate culture change.
Concerned that I might get too far off the track in these articles, I went to the local library and perused several books. They basically said the same thing I am saying, and are similar to articles that I wrote about finding meaning in life in 1997 on my Visual Writer Web site.
So I tried to glean a kernel of wisdom from each of these:
- Martha Beck, in Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the life you were meant to live, 2001, describes the process of transitions similarly to myself and others. It begins with death. Everything you learned or experienced evaporates. There is then a time of making wild plans for a plethora of good things to come in the future. The first few attempts to launch something new, trial balloons, hardly get off the ground, but eventually something does come out of it all, and persistence makes it work.
- Dr. Phil McGraw, in his book Real life (Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life), 2008, produces a jewel on page 246, saying "The challenge is to find what makes 'you' feel most alive and purposeful." He continues, "You can choose to use the gifts, skills, and abilities God gave you."
- A couple of other books that I picked up and scanned, which seemed intelligently written and relatable, were: Rhonda Britten, Fearless Living: Live Without Excuses and Love Without Regret. 2001, and Judith Sills, The Comfort Trap or what if you're riding a dead horse, 2004.
- Also, I have just started reading Elizabeth Harper Neeld's, Tough Transitions: Navigating your way through difficult times, 2005, which I quote later in this article.
- I have been familiar with William Bridges book, Transitions (Making sense of life's changes), 1980, for many years. The state I call "limbo" (from my more post-postmodern perspective), Bridges describes as "neutral," as if you put your car in neutral and are going nowhere, a great metaphor. He urges people not to hurry through that stage, but to make the most of it and discover what they really want. Endings are dyings. (We aren't likely to relive the past.) What we want is usually unclear. If your life ended today, think of what would have been "unlived- " dreams, convictions, talents....
Change that is thrust on us
Sometimes change is thrust on us unexpectedly. Someone dies who was a big part of life, a favorite pastor and mentor leaves... and is replaced by an uninspiring and nonsense spouting dud, a spouse asks for divorce, we have our first child, a child gets married and moves away instead of going to community college, a job ends and with it financial viability, we move to a new location, we retire, we go to live with relatives or to a nursing home.... Life brings what it brings to everyone, it isn't selective - life happens.
When life happens, it brings unexpected change that challenges our sense of meaning and purpose. As Elizabeth Neeld put it, "When this structure falls apart, we find ourselves in a void. Our threads of purpose and meaning are cut. Where we were going has ceased to exist.... The expectations and beliefs that shaped our behavior no longer hold."
Every ending is a new beginning. It's the next stage of our lives. We may become numb to the loss and to our entire lives, keep putting one foot in front of another to do things that are necessary, and sometimes we can even plow through to a new beginning, but eventually we have to deal with our loss. Knowing all this, even for professionals who help others deal with it, doesn't alleviate the pain, the sense of isolation and loneliness, the sense of loss from something that can never be replaced, the emptiness and meaninglessness, or despair. We are all human, and we all love deeply and find profound meaning and fulfilling purpose in our lives, and it is a horrible loss when things change.
Grief is a process that is typified by stages (that I won't go into here). For a while, we may see our loss in everything around us. The violence in the papers may symbolize to us the ubiquitous tearing down of everything people hold dear. Our faith may be strained to the breaking point and we may be very angry with God and reject Him - this is common. We may find that those who are going on with their normal lives seem bizarrely unaware of loss and disintegration of our and their universe - how could they be so happy? We live with and work through these things. We talk and commiserate with pastors, ministers, friends, grief counselors, family, God, and somehow we keep going day by day until we can engage in life in some new way again.
I have seen people forty years after a life changing event who simply remained living in the past and never took a step into the future. But God has more in store for us than the past. God is not God of just the past. He is God of the past, the present, and the future. If we will try new things, try many of them, we will find a place where we can contribute and find meaning and a fulfilling purpose for our lives again. The sooner we deal with loss, the sooner we can come to know what really matters.
What each of us must do is grieve, and it takes time. We must work through the grief process, and acknowledge our loss and our emotions so that we can discover. We must understand what our past gave us. We must begin to look to the future, past the blank wall that is the future, to try new things, meet new people, build new relationships, and discover that future to find our new place in the world.
When I joined the Navy during Viet Nam, it took me away from home for years, overseas where I wouldn't see my family for two years. It wasn't with my Mother's blessing, but it was necessary for me. Before leaving for my long assignment, my family had a short trip together, but at the last minute my Mom was called away to visit her sick mother.
My sense of loss at that small event was overwhelming and I was grief stricken for the entire trip. Her staying away accentuated that I lost my friend, my confidant, my supporter, my advocate. But I had grown up, made my own decisions, and I learned to rely on myself. When I came home from the service, I made my own way in the world and married. Leaving was a necessary transition that we all make. Today I just let my wife make my decisions. Just kidding - I have a sign over my computer that says, "Gee... It's nice to talk things over with you."
Coping with change
Everyone has their way of dealing with change. It isn't my place to tell others exactly how to do it. If it's effective, then maybe modify it to make it better. But anger and a sense of loss are a distinctive mark of transition, whether it stems from change that you want or change that is forced on you. Both cause us to lose things.
The worst case is when we become fearful of change and back away from it, either rejecting that it has happened, or preventing it from happening. (Denial is part of the grief process, and is normal at first.) We're here, we might as well make the most of it. We have to remember that we are usually moving on to something worth the investment, and a part of our future experience and happiness... or important to other's future experience. Today, at 83, my mother does minor sewing alterations for others, makes clothes, and teaches children how to sew in a class. She is very much invested in other's lives.
In the 2008 movie, Grand Torino, the main character, Walt Kowalski, is a bitter veteran who recently lost his wife, and his neighborhood is now mainly inhabited by Southeast Asians and overrun with gangs and their violence. Nothing is the same in his world - he is a person in major transition and fighting every bit of it. Despite his prejudice against the foreign family next door, he discovers they are much like everyone else, and their futures are threatened by the gangs. He helps them, mentors them, and ends up sacrificing his own life to rid them of gang violence.
In Grand Torino, relatively normal life changes came to Kowalski. Sometimes there are things that we have to do. Sometimes there are things that we are "called" to do - we may not find them particularly enjoyable, but we just know that it is our mission. Then there are things that we find fulfilling. I truly believe that God wants our lives to have fulfilling meaning and purpose, if we have the courage to change. These are things that bring inner joy and peace to us. And God has shaped our lives for that result.
The way to find these things is to try new things and see if we really enjoy them and find them meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling. These are things that are more important than merely existing and getting along. They are more important than acquiring wealth, fame, power, sexual relationships, esteem, business success, and all the other temporal trappings that we often pursue at the detriment of the most important things in our lives.
Our lives are very intertwined with other's lives. Sometimes our future is about us. Sometimes our future is about us and them. Sometimes our future is just about them. It's up to us to push on the doors of new things and see which one God opens for our discovery.
Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.