Life Changes: How Can We Face Major Life Transitions?
Life changes are growing in size and frequency in our lives, as we move further into the twenty-first century.
The question of how we will deal with these major life transitions is becoming more and more important for us as individuals as we each confront the challenges of our particular life journey. How will change come to you? And how will you cope with it? Perhaps the reality of big life changes is something you’re dealing with even now.
Life changes can be raw, even violent events that strip away the certainties in our lives, leaving us without much defense against the impacts of life. The raw force of unmitigated change can be devastating.
Michael Enright, the host of the CBC radio program The Sunday Edition gave a powerful example of this on the show’s February 21 episode. In the feature item “Can Canada find a housing solution for its homeless?”, he quoted a shocking statistic: of the approximately 35,000 homeless people in Canada, between 3,000 and 5,000 are veterans of the Canadian military, many of them with operational experience in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the experience that a significant proportion of veterans have with return to civilian life is pretty emblematic of how not to deal with major life changes. Many are given very little preparation or assistance with the return to “civvy street”, and find themselves basically thrown into an environment that can seem very daunting and unfamiliar after living a military life for an extended period. As one veteran, Philip Kitchen, put it,
I love the military, the way it worked, the leadership, the opportunities. I was keen on my job…. The transition to civilian life is so hard, I can’t describe it. I had never been a civilian in adult life.
The consensus of a great many service and government agencies is that veterans are given very little preparation for undergoing the major life transition they will face.
Discharged veterans are a powerful example of what often happens around major life changes in our fast-paced, rapidly emerging society. Individuals are often ripped out of stable situations, and plunged into new, unfamiliar circumstances without any prior preparation or support. It can cost the individual a great deal, psychologically, to have to deal with change in this manner.
Beyond A Naive Approach to Life Changes
Many people in our time attempt a kind of “heroic” approach to life changes, whether it’s shifting careers, leaving a marriage, retiring, losing s spouse, re-marrying, moving to a new city, or any of a range of other major changes. In our era, people frequently just wade right in, often without really acknowledging what is involved emotionally in making a truly life-altering change. This can be very difficult and painful.
Our ancestors actually did a better job of this kind of thing than we do. Many indigenous cultures, and by no means least, Canada’s own First Nations, embody awareness of the need for processes of initiation when individuals went through major life changes.
If an individual in an indigenous culture was to go through a major life change, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, his or her journey would likely be recognized through a rite of passage. Such a ceremonial process of initiation might span a considerable amount of time. In its complete form, as outlined by the famous scholar Arnold van Gennep, such a process of initiation would have three parts:
- Separation, in which the individual goes through a withdrawal from his or her old status, and prepares to move to something new;
- Transitional Phase, an ambiguous state, in which the individual has left the old identity behind, but has not yet taken on the new identity; and,
- Incorporation of New Identity, in which the individual completes the rite, assumes his or her new identity, and moves forward into life with that new identity. This part of the rite is often symbolized by some sort of outward representation or recognition of adopting the new identity.
Once an individual passes early adulthood, our society doesn’t seem to do that well at providing rites of passage to acknowledge major life transitions. That may be part of the reason that there often seems to be so much anxiety and depression associated with life changes in the lives of individuals in our culture.
Life Changes and Rites of Passage
It’s essential that people give themselves compassion as they confront major life changes. It’s vital that they give themselves the psychological room to acknowledge everything that is happening to them — the losses, the disorientation, and the joys and pains of coming into a new lived reality and a new identity.
This acknowledgment can be a very demanding task in our fast-paced, impersonal, “aren’t-you-over-that-yet?” society. One important support and resource in doing this crucial work can be a solid alliance with a Jungian /a-midlife-transition, as we move through all the life changes that are part of the journey to wholeness.