Transitioning Gracefully

Transitioning Gracefully: The Women’s 2013 Auction Sermon
By Ms. Roberta Altamari
January 26, 2014
One of my favorite quotes is by Helen Keller, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Transitions often end up being about doors opening to a new phase of life. Like flying on a trapeze, you have to let go of one before you can catch the next. It’s a leap of faith moment. It’s like riding on a rollercoaster. If you hold on tight and trust that you will be okay during the scary part, the overall journey is really fun. These letting go and trusting messages are really great ideals, but are they easier said than done?
This is such a normal and important part of our lives that there are countless self-help books, quotes, and religious messages to help us let go and trust the process. We all need inspiration and help to process life transitions and changes. My favorite prayer is the serenity prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Even though I don’t believe in an all-powerful-God who is controlling my life like this, I do appreciate the reminder this prayer gives me to let go of the things that I cannot change, then consider changing the things that I can, and to be carefully discerning which is which. That’s the key part for me. What can I change and what do I need to accept as is. I believe that success with transitioning is very much about how you respond. Your life is created not by what happens, but by your attitude and response. Your reactions predict your happiness more than the life events themselves.
There are different kinds of changes we will all encounter during our lives. Big or small. With long-term effects or short-term effects. Sudden or evolving over time. Chosen by you or unplanned and unexpected. We could fill up this entire service (or the whole day for that matter) talking about the big changes that we have all survived. I could tell you the story of my biggest unexpected changes (like my grandfather dying on Christmas Eve) and my biggest planned changes (like getting divorced). But when I started to process what it might “mean” to transition through these changes gracefully, I realized that the “how” ends up being more important than the “what”. Whether the transition is chosen or not, expected or not, big or not, the response and process you proceed with is similar. And I believe the first step is recognizing the “loss”. Even if you want the change, there is loss. I remember hearing a talk by a Rabbi a long time ago when I was a new mom. He said that even when you want a change in your life, there are some losses inherent with every change that you will grieve whether you are prepared to or not. No matter how much you adore your new baby, you will naturally grieve the loss of sleep, quiet time, freedom to go out whenever you want, and the other life changes that happen when the baby comes home. That lesson was profound for me.
Before I continue on, let’s review the basics about grief stages that the Rabbi was referring to. There are five stages of normal grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Kübler-Ross originally developed this model based on her observations of people suffering from terminal illness. She later expanded her theory to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or income, major rejection, the end of a relationship or divorce, drug addiction, incarceration, the onset of a disease or chronic illness, an infertility diagnosis, as well as many tragedies and disasters (and even minor losses).
Wikipedia described the stages in an interesting way. Here are some of their highlights.
Denial — “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”
Denial can be a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, or the reality of the situation.
Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”
Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them.
Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…”
The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay the change by seeking to bargain or negotiate a compromise.
Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
Depression is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation.
Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with their mortality, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event.
While Wikipedia presents the stages in a linear fashion, some experts believe we float around the stages possibly visiting each stage multiple times during any given change in no predictable order. While these stages are commonly accepted in our society, there is actually little agreement about how exactly we proceed through them. The significant message for me is simply that … life changes involve loss, and we will grieve those losses (whether we want to or not) in our natural process during our life transitions. The most profound learning for me in this is the understanding that negative and positive emotions will come in any situation. Good emotions will come in proclaimed bad changes and hard emotions will come in chosen good changes. That’s life and we are much better off if we accept all this and prepare accordingly.
My advice to myself and any of you going through a life transition is to slow down … breathe … take it one step at a time … and don’t do anything stupid! As I said earlier, this is much easier said than done for many reasons. First of all, we are afraid. We are afraid of change. We are afraid of hard emotions. We are afraid of most things not happy and pleasant. That’s how we are wired. Don’t we all have a story about ourselves or our loved one stubbornly holding on to the familiar even when it was not good to do so. We are afraid. That’s when we need a trusted friend who will remind us that we will be okay no matter what happens. That’s when we need faith. You can have faith even if you don’t consider yourself a religious person. Faith simply means trusting that you will be okay. You have loved ones (and the community here at First Parish) who WILL help you if life gets too hard for you. Bottom line, you will be okay.
If you do have faith, the good news is that your life may even better after the change. Last summer, my daughter led a summer service sharing her journey transitioning away from competitive gymnastics. It started with a medical issue that required her to choose between surgery or quitting competitive gymnastics. She decide to quit but stay coaching only to discover two weeks later that her beloved head coach got fired and then the entire competitive team followed her to another gym. Since my daughter wasn’t competing, she couldn’t switch to the new gym. She eventually just left the gym and now rarely sees her gymnastics friends. It was an incredibly sad process to witness my own daughter suffer through. I desperately just wanted to make it better for her. Yes, she processed her way through the previously mentioned grief stages and all I could do was let her know that I was there for her if she wanted anything. I tried to get creative letting her invite one of the closest friends on summer vacation with us, but it felt like a Band-Aid solution compared to all she was coping with. Although this seems like a perfect illustration of a bad change, there did end up being good parts that we now know about a whole year later. She discovered that gymnastics wasn’t her life. She started exploring new areas and is now considering studying pre-med instead of sports management in college. She is grateful to know now that being a pediatrician is more her true calling than being a gymnastics coach. She is more confident for future work situations having successfully navigated the confusing adult social dynamics involved in leaving her first job (coaching at the gym) in a respectful way. Before this change, she was a teenage girl spending much of her time competing and teaching gymnastics thinking that was how she wanted to spend her entire life. After this change, she was a more confident young woman understanding the complexities of the workplace with dreams of a career working four days in a pediatric practice and one day in an inner-city clinic. We get so caught up in phases of our lives that we don’t always realize that time will tell our whole story.
As we get older, we hopefully gain more faith simply from having lived through so many changes that yielded both these positive and negative effects in our lives. We accept that we will have to deal with some negative things, but we also trust that some good stuff is coming to. That’s why I keep reminding myself to slow down, breathe, take it one step at a time … and don’t do anything stupid! Some of the women of First Parish challenged me to preach about “Transitioning Gracefully” … which I later concluded is their mature and eloquent way of saying my mantra – “slow down, breathe, take it one step at a time … and don’t do anything stupid.”
What does it mean to transition “gracefully”? Here are some definitions of “grace” (from online dictionaries): a way of moving that is smooth and attractive and that is not stiff or awkward; a charming or attractive trait or characteristic; a pleasing appearance or effect; simple elegance; a controlled, polite, and pleasant way of behaving; the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful; unmerited divine assistance given humans; a virtue coming from God; touched by God; God’s representative; free & unmerited favor of God; an act of kindness, courtesy, or clemency; used as a title of address or reference for a duke, a duchess, or an archbishop; and a short prayer at a meal asking a blessing or giving thanks. For time’s sake since we don’t want to be here all afternoon, I will ignore the ones about our appearance because I think (or at least hope) we can all agree that we shouldn’t have to worry about “looking elegant and charming” when we are coping with hard stuff. Likewise, I will ignore the God talk ones because although some of us might believe there is a little bit of God in all of us, I’m thinking that is just too high of an expectation for us to expect ourselves to live up to. Like the book sitting on my shelf says, “Buddha Never Raised Kids & Jesus Didn’t Drive Carpool”. It’s wonderful to be inspired by great religious leaders, but when I’m down and out and suffering with life throwing crazy changes my way, I need the help of some friends who will admit the mistakes they have made in similar situations while helping me get up and clean the mud off myself.
To me, I can get realistically inspired to be graceful during my life transitions IF it means “a controlled, polite, and pleasant way of behaving” or “the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful”. Let me be clear that I’m not saying that I always WILL BE graceful. Hey, I’m a real human being and it’s just not that easy. And let me also be clear that I’m being very explicit about this definition of grace. Grace is one of those words that is easy to interpret as more broad and encompassing than it really is. Similar to my daughter’s summer service during which she dissected the word respect to realize that true respect requires respecting yourself while you are respecting others, I believe practicing grace simply means behaving in a way that is considerate and thoughtful of all parties involved. I can even welcome the definition language of “a controlled, polite, and pleasant way of behaving”. To me, being controlled simply means being mindful of my actions and having carefully considered them. Let me be clear that I am the one “controlling” my actions and decisions, but I would be doing it in a way that is polite and considerate of others. Does this mean that I can never make decisions that other people will be unhappy with? NO!! It means that I will be mindful of that unhappiness in the way I transition through the change.
When I decided to end my marriage, it was not an easy process. I really did try to slow down and take it one step at a time. I recognized how destructive the divorce process can be and approached my now ex-husband to talk as openly and honestly as possible with him. I let him know that we were still great co-parents to our daughters, but that our romantic and companion relationship was long gone and that the divide felt beyond repair to me. I admitted I was afraid that if we didn’t recognize and address this that one of us might stray and we’d end up with a third adult (who had no relationship with our children) trying to dictate important decisions. Although my ex-husband was unhappy with this revelation, he heard my honesty and appreciated my desire to proceed in a way that was respectful first and foremost to myself, him, and our two daughters. Throughout our divorce and our co-parenting years, we try to relate this way. We don’t always agree. But with mutually respectful communication, we make it through life transitions in a way I would call graceful.
I tell this story because it is one of the few times I actually could honestly define myself as transitioning gracefully. It is really is not always easy to do. First of all, we sometimes don’t even know that we are transitioning. Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of a situation and then realize that you are dealing with some transition – and you know life is not going to be like the past. Like some of the women who helped with this sermon shared in reference to supporting aging parents, sometimes you can see the new phase of life coming, but you may not fully realize it until later. It’s hard to be intentional about the steps when you don’t even realize they are happening. That is why my personal goal is to be more intentional about every step I take. Rushing through life benefits no one. As Dwight Lyman Moody said, “Grace isn’t a little prayer you chant before receiving a meal. It’s a way to live.”
A second reason it can be hard to transition gracefully is that it is a human tendency to react quickly to change. Science has proven the flight, fight, or freeze reaction humans have when afraid. Whether you run away, argue, or stand emotionally paralyzed, none of these support transitioning gracefully. Instead, maybe we can recognize the flight, fight, or freeze reaction and slow down, breathe, and carefully consider what is happening before we react. And we need to remember that we don’t have to fix everything right now. We often most regret our quick responses … that email sent before we proofread it the next morning or those resentful words shouted in anger. Honestly, there may indeed be a message that needs to be delivered to someone who is disrespecting us, but it is always best delivered when we are calm, cool, and collected. Being graceful is about being intentionally thoughtful about our words and our actions. Will we get the best possible outcome with our reaction? As Bo Lozoff said, “We’re all stumbling towards the light with varying degrees of grace at any given moment.” It never hurts to slow down and consider being more graceful.
A third reason it can be hard to transition gracefully is that we are coping with some of the hard aforementioned “grieving emotions” as we are processing the changes. We are human and need to process our feelings. Understanding this is important. It is why I chose the Rumi “Guest House” poem for today. Every morning, or actually, every moment, a new emotion might be coming to our door. We need to take time to honor it and simply be with it. For many years, I had very mixed feelings about Christmas. On one hand, I was sad remembering the year we found my grandfather dead from a heart attack right on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, I was happy seeing Christmas through the eyes of my growing daughters. The joy of both giving and receiving thoughtful gifts is a powerful thing. I often bounced back and forth between these emotions confused … until I later learned to expect the coming sadness and joy, and honor both of them. I asked myself, “what will I do this year to remember and honor the losses in my life?” This year, I hosted a dinner at First Parish for others who might be feeling alone on Christmas. Sitting with it felt right. Which reminded me that being graceful isn’t always happy or positive. Being graceful is more about being compassionate for all involved. As John R. W. Stott said, “Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues.”
Whatever emotions we are feeling and whatever changes we are processing, to me, transitioning gracefully is as important to do for ourselves as it is for the people around us. While being graceful can seem like it is about being thoughtful of the people around you, grace is a powerful force that can yield incredible amounts of positive energy. I have to admit that I might have rolled my eyes when I heard I would be preaching about grace. I don’t consider being graceful to be one of my strengths and it’s not really a word I have ever taken the time to consider. But now I am realizing like the words compassion and love that I have promoted from this very pulpit during prior sermons, grace is something worth spreading. As Jonathan Edwards said, “Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.” No transition is ever stress-free … but with the support of your loved ones, an intentional thoughtful process, and the sharing of grace, I promise you that some wonderful moments await you.