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Living in the In-Between


Aging is about making sense of changes and how we view and adapt to these changes, which seem to be more complex and momentous. It feels like we've moved into a new house, arranged the furniture, and are comfortable, and someone then knocks on the door and says it's time to move out. This is the nature of change. When we become attached to something, or someone, or somewhere, it changes.

Facing Life's Changes

In aging, we face changes that come as endings and beginnings, such as an empty nest, facing retirement, illness, or the death of friends. You also face beginnings: moving into a retirement community, going back to school, retiring early, or grandparenting. Some beginnings and endings you initiated; some just happen. Some changes may be seen as "bad," some as "good." It all depends on how we view change. What changes have you faced in life? Are they self-imposed? Are they unexpected, sudden, or unplanned? What did it feel like to go through a self-imposed change versus an unplanned change?

Endings Before Beginnings

Before you can understand the process of change, you must face what has ended in your life before something new can be born. We need to let go of what is, so something new can be born.

The first step is to realize what you are losing. Hw much of this is real and how much is your imagination? Much of what you envision changing is in your mind. Is the ending as bad as you think it will be?

Second, what other changes will occur as a result of this one ending? When you decide to end something, don't be surprised by the reactions of others. Some may feel threatened because you are no longer holding down your accustomed place in their world. We must acknowledge the ending, listening to the effects of your decision on others, and informing people in your life about what is changing and why.

Third, you need to disengage from the past, gently. What from the past do you want to take with you into the future? What bridges do you not want to burn? To bring an ending, we must loosen the bonds of who we thought we were so we can go through the transition to a new identity. This means to be less enchanted with the old, realizing that some of the significant part of your old reality was in your head. You are more than the sum of your job description, your titles and the roles you assumed.

Fourth, an ending is a dying. You go through the stages of grieving Kubler-Ross describes. You may be unsure of where you are and where you are going. This can be frightening. Go gently into the change process, accepting the natural flow of change with all of its feelings. It helps to celebrate endings with activities that dramatize the ending.

Ask yourself, what has ended in your life? How have you dealt with these endings? Which ending was most painful, difficult, or joyous for you? Have you given yourself and others a piece of the past to take with you/them? What losses are you still grieving? How do you mark endings? What needs to end for you now? What part of your life is without passion, color, or excitement? What do you need to do to bring it to a close?

In-Between Times

Aging involves living in the in-between times, between endings and beginnings and what St. John of the Cross called the "dark nights of the soul." The "dark night" is not necessarily about despair, but rather about the uncertainty of what lies ahead. The question is how you will live between endings and beginnings. How will you pass through peaceful endings into passionate beginnings?

A career may be ending, but you are still not quite sure what you will do now. Physical strength may be lessening, but your wisdom strength has not yet blossomed. The belief systems you had do not work any longer, but you've not yet replaced them. The old answers no longer work, and you are left with questions. In the in-between times, questions seem to be more significant and the answers more elusive.

When faced with these times, we want to move quickly to something new, fearing uncertainty about what lies ahead. Living without answers creates anxiety. However, endings breed new life. Keep in mind that it took a short time for Moses to get the people out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the people.

In this time of wandering you want answers, but often there are none. The wilderness is just like building a fire: at first it's smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. You must light the fire within you and see this time as not the absence of something, but the transition between life's phases.

How to Turn the Scary Into the Sacred

Although we don't like to live in an in-between state, we need to live between endings and beginnings, to stand between the polarity of what was and what is yet to be, holding together the opposites, to turn the scary into sacred times. The sacred is the movement toward deeper truth, connection, and understanding. Whatever helps us move in that direction is sacred.

First, despite our work-oriented culture, important spiritual work is happening, although it may not be evident at the time. Give it time to grow. Allow yourself the time to gaze at the moon, walk gently on the earth, discover the awe of the night, and dream.

Second, we need to surrender to what is outside our control. The serenity Prayer states, "…have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The control you once thought you had is illusory. you really never were in control, although you thought you were.

Third, find a time and place to be alone and put a "do not disturb" sign on your life for a time. These alone times are found when jogging, sitting in your car without listening to the radio, or on a spiritual retreat. These alone times provide the solitude and silence you desperately need.

Fourth, when all around you seems to be changing, identify the continuities in your life, what has not changed, the roots that tie you to the continuities in your life. What do you not want to lose or see end?

Fifth, we must wrestle with the paradox, mystery, and questions of life. Only then can you find light. Nothing makes the light stand out as well as darkness. It is the very darkness that you are trying to avoid that allows you to see the sparks of transformation. Discover gratitude in the darkness, joy in sadness, and life in life's ruins.

You may do all of these things, yet in the darkness nothing happens. The worst thing you can do in the darkness is to avoid the insights staring you in the face, to keep doing what you have always done, to avoid the light that is bringing you out of your darkness.

How to Move Through In-Between Times

There are questions we ponder in the in-between times, such as life's deeper meaning; how to be more involved in social, peace, and justice concerns; how to simplify life; how to have an environmentally-responsible lifestyle. We need to ask what we are saving time for, how might the future look different? What are the potential doors waiting to open?

Our response will be shaped by how old we are. Through the lens of age, we view the future. In our sixties, we may need to make a career change into a new form of work or expand our avocational and volunteer interests, to adjust to more constant companionship with a partner or to single life, or to face the death of friends. We may need to reap the rewards from the work we've done. We may need to seek mentoring opportunities with young people. The sixties are a time to enjoy the rewards of a spiritual quest.

If you are in your seventies or older, you may seek to pass on wisdom from your life to youth. This is a time to prepare for the mystery of what comes next, to put your affairs in order by making suitable living arrangements for your later days. These are the years when you can find nature a solace and enjoy spiritual maturity.

New Beginnings

Beginnings happen! To face new beginnings, we need to frame life in a different way, to not focus on power, prestige, and possessions. Ironically, after waiting in the in-between time for a new beginning, when the desired beginning comes, you may be afraid of it. It may feel easier to stay in your security. Perhaps the new idea will not work out. Others may think your ideas are crazy, unrealistic, or odd.

Rarely is the path into new beginnings well marked. Unless you are struck by divine revelation, you may wonder if this is what you ought to do. To face beginnings, it is important not to fear them, to see life as an adventure of continuous change, a movement to authenticity, an invitation to connect to your deepest self, to other people, to nature, and to life itself. If life is seen as an adventure of continuous change, beginnings are seen in a larger context of meaning and significance.

Making Choices

The following exercise may help you move from endings to beginnings.

  1. Be aware of your growing discomfort with what is happening in your life.
  2. Begin to realize the need to change, to choose another lifestyle.
  3. Check out available options, becoming informed about the possibilities available.
  4. Ask yourself, "What do I want? What draws me? What am I willing to do to get what I desire?"
  5. Now comes the hard part: Being aware of where you resist change. Sometimes the known, despite how painful that may be, is safer than the shock of the new. Be aware of what you are holding on to.
  6. Practice change, one step at a time. Take small steps, one day at a time.

These are the steps to move from endings through the neutral zone into new beginnings. Now is the time to get started on your new journey.

David J. Powell, Ph.D., is President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc., in which he is assisting in the development of behavioral health treatment in Asia. He resides half of the year in Beijing and Singapore. Dr. Powell is the author of Playing Life's Second Half: A Man's Guide for Turning Success into Significance, as well as six other books in the mental health field. He has been a clinician and marriage and family therapist for forty years. Dr. Powell can be reached at d[email protected] or www.ichc-us.org.