“Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.” — Sigmund Freud
Anyone who reads my blog probably knows that I have a love for Celtic poets. One of my favorites is John O’Donohue. I have several of his books on my bedside table, and last night, I came across this thought-provoking piece of writing:
“At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it? A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience, or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold, a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossings were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds: to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.”
— Excerpt from To Bless the Space Between Us (US) / Benedictus (Europe) by John O’Donohue
This resonated strongly with me as I once again find myself in a place where I am called to cross into a new frontier. While I know that life is a continual becoming and that change is life, these last two years were particularly tiring — a seemingly constant progression from one threshold to another. Thresholds differ: some are exciting; they feel like they are calling us into adventure and growth. Others are more like edges or endless liminal spaces filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. Some are chosen; others are forced on us by the actions of others or simply by life. The fact is that some threshold crossings never seem to get easier, no matter how many times you are called upon to do so.
Everywhere I go, people are sharing stories of thresholds and transitions: some are transitioning into or out of relationships; into a job, self-employment, a sabbatical or, more traumatically, unemployment. Some are transitioning into well-being, others into burn-out or ill-health. Some are becoming parents for the first time and are anxious about their child’s future. Few things symbolise the future as powerful as children — and right now, the uncertainty of the future is taking its toll. This last week, I had several conversations with friends from all over the world who are struggling with the complexity of guiding their children through critical transitions in our current context. Whether from toddler to child, child to teenager, or teenager to adult — the last two years have severely impacted young people. Essential threshold rituals have been affected or even “stolen” by lockdowns and distancing; two years is a long time in a child’s life. Statistics on mental health concerns and even suicide among children worldwide are startling and concerning.
On the other end of the spectrum, many have to navigate mid-life transitions in a world that looks completely different than it did three short years ago. Having just turned 50, I am confronted with new questions: what thresholds are in front of me now? Are they hard edges, extensive frontiers, or both? What is emerging? Where do I find meaning in the second half of my life? What must I let go of, unlearn or mourn? What must I grow (or learn to flow) into? While I’d love for someone to give me the answers, I’ve learned that the only way to find my way is to “sit in the fire” with these questions and live into the answers.
Another significant transition that is currently unfolding is the push for people to return to the office, or at least to some form of hybrid working. While many managers see this merely as a “return to normal”, for many people, this represents a significant change and for some, even a traumatic one. It is unrealistic to expect people to fall back into pre-pandemic routines as if nothing ever happened. It is also unrealistic to expect teams to seamlessly come together again as if they are still the same teams. Yet it’s as if people are expected to shed the habits and routines they developed over the last two-and-a-half years and resume their pre-pandemic work lives as if it is as simple as taking off one set of clothes and putting on another. It is much closer to needing to shed our skins, a much more painful and profound process.
It is human nature not to like ambiguity and uncertainty — that feeling of being in limbo or being pushed or pulled over an edge. I find myself pondering ways to ease these transitions, because more and more I realise that doing so is a key skill to be fit for a turbulent future.
Sometimes, I find that simply acknowledging that there is a threshold and marking it in some way as significant is enough. Other times, we need more. Liminality can trigger strong emotions, and as O’Donohue rightly says, this is why so many ancient cultures relied on rituals to punctuate key transitions.
Many of us didn’t fully realise the value of our rituals before they were stripped away. Whether death rituals, coming of age rituals, wedding or birth celebrations, or even the more minor, almost invisible rituals that used to punctuate our daily routines — not having access to them significantly added to the trauma of this pandemic.
So a question becomes: How might we create new rituals to make up for the lost moments? The missing years of childhood play, the missed opportunity to say goodbye, the missed celebrations? How might we retrospectively create new meaning and a sense of closure or ‘crossing’?
Similarly, what new rituals can help people navigate the often forced transition to yet another new way of working? How do we help teams to re”member” and form new relationships between team members and their work and purpose? It will serve us well to remember that no one likes being dragged across an edge. Especially if we want to avoid unintended consequences like further mass resignations, active disengagement, or a workforce filled with resentment.
To me, this feels like a calling back to something fundamentally human. A mindful acceptance and celebration of life’s many transitions. Maybe this could be a gift of our turbulent times, reconnecting to the power of ritual that ancient cultures knew so well.
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia