The end of December brings many things that I look forward to, things like those overly-rich holiday treats unabashedly consumed until the last crumb (or drop!) is gone, and the hoped-for snowfall that compels us to strap on our snowshoes and take wooded hikes with our dogs.
There’s also the annual “The Lives They Lived” edition of the Sunday New York Times magazine.
Those who know me well know that I’m fascinated by obituaries. It’s not because I have a morbid streak; not at all. The interest comes from a fascination with lives, and these little snippets, simultaneously public and private, tell the simplest and most intriguing stories about people. Some I recognize and others are unknown to me, yet it doesn’t matter: I read them still. Even in their simplest form I am struck with the way they create images of lives lived, families loved, and accomplishments fulfilled.
“The Lives They Lived” that arrives on the Sunday before New Year’s Day is, for me, a rich culmination of reflection upon those lives that have transitioned before us over the past year, blending both sadness and celebration, shifts and changes, wins and defeats in its journalistic pictures and stories.
Not surprisingly, this year’s edition opens with the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The article juxtaposes the tragedy with a much older story. In 1937, a New London, Texas elementary school blew up from a natural gas explosion. The accident claimed the lives of 295 students and teachers, making it the deadliest school disaster in our history.
Both stories depict tragedy and sorrow so great that it was (and still is) difficult to bend our minds around how such horrific things can happen. Both created an immediate groundswell of reaction aimed at fixing the problem; in the case of the gas explosion, the Texas legislature rushed to regulate the lax engineering practices that were deemed the cause of all those deaths, while with Newtown we once again struggle to understand the role of guns in our society.
What hasn’t yet garnered as much discussion are the changes all those affected are going through. And yet nascent change creeps and crawls into our consciousness, begins to unfold. New thinking comes to the surface, forcing us to explore a transitional journey that will hopefully lead to growth.
In William Bridges’ “transitions” work, he makes the point that, “[t]he transition itself begins with letting go of something you have believed or assumed, some way you’ve always been or seen yourself, some outlook on the world or attitude toward others.”
In both cases—Sandy Hook and New London elementary, there will be (and has been) a period of “letting go,” a letting go of how we view the world, what we accept and don’t accept regarding how our world is oriented around decisions, laws, and safety. It happened soon after the New London tragedy when new regulations were passed, and, as of this writing, we anticipate what will be changed regarding gun legislation and our provisions for those needing mental health services.
Regardless of the final changes, we are afforded an opportunity to shift our current mindsets, to adopt new thinking, make new decisions that will, hopefully, positively impact the lives before us. In doing so, we can generate conversation instead of conflict, possibility instead of prohibition.
Here are three suggestions that I offer to help many of us understand and even thrive through the transitions we face:
- Let go. Release the old thinking you might be attaching yourself to about others. Our self-propagated assumptions about others block possibility, not only for us and those we judge, but for the potential of having a relationship with them. Ask yourself these questions: What haven’t I allowed myself to see in this person? What haven’t I allowed myself to see about myself in relationship with this person? What am I not allowing myself to know? What am I pretending to know?
- Practice self-awareness. Carl Jung said, “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Create quiet time for yourself to explore your inner thoughts and drives. Keep a journal and write down what comes to mind during your quiet time. We all have what it takes to change, to transition to new ways of being that we never thought possible. Questions to live in regarding practicing self-awareness might be: What is possible? Where might this take me? How might I make room for generating more possibility?
- Practice other-orientation. Seek out ways to become more aware of others around you and how you might contribute to their well-being and growth. As you discover new ways of being for yourself, broaden your practice by becoming more aware of others’ needs. Look for how you can help another person grow and learn.
Bridges’ work reminds us that we are always in transition—in both our personal and professional lives—and that what’s at stake is how we view ourselves, how we open ourselves to new awareness of the world around us, and that as we pay attention and get in touch with our thinking, we have the power to affect change and navigate transitions with impact and grace. Until then, our world might be held hostage to our attachment to what was and always will be rather than to the possibilities of what can be.
It’s true that tragedy focuses a lens on transition. It happened in 1937 and it happened again in 2012. But transition is something that happens every day in smaller, more private ways. Perhaps it’s these smaller ways that will eventually make the difference for all of us, personally, professionally, and socially.
Let’s work toward supporting each other and being in partnership to create positive change, embrace possibility, and navigate our collective transitions throughout 2013.