From “What now?” to “What if?”
It’s still subtle, and a lot of 2-steps-forward-1-step-back, but I can feel things continuing to shift for me. It’s no longer “How will I survive?” but something more like “How shall I live?” There is a future out there and I have the controlling say in how it will unfold.
Major life transitions are a subject on which I’m rather well-read, but when you are actually in the grips of living through one, it doesn’t help all that much to know the theoretical models or even to recognize where you are on those models. I’m not talking here about the overly-simple “five stages of grief,” but rather about life transition models (like William Bridges’ “ending/ neutral zone/ beginning” model), or developmental models (like Robert Kegan’s five-stage cognitive complexity model).
Per Bridges’ model, I went through my first major life transition as I was leaving husband #1, dealing with my simultaneous feelings of intense relief and massive guilt. It took months to years to fully leave that “ending” behind and fully grow into the new “beginning” with Kurt. I struggled mightily at times with the completely-unmoored experience of that “neutral” time. I had my whacko moments, but looking back now I can see that time as a healthy process of reclaiming my self-esteem.
The second major life transition would have been the year I had to work part time from mid-1995 to mid-1996, while I finally dealt with the grieving I’d deferred from my mother’s death in 1993 and the emotional after-effects of some health issues I’d had that same year along with major changes at work in 1994-95. I spent my two non-working days each week trying to make an herb garden grow in a rocky, windy, hopeless site, and developing a vision of the person I wanted to become. It was a vision that I eventually managed to make real in virtually every detail. That rocky “garden” was healing, and I emerged from that period a stronger person with a dream and a desire to grow myself.
Losing Kurt has clearly been my biggest and most challenging life transition so far. It was such a dramatic, caught-up-in-the-tide-of-events ending, that I had to spend a lot of time simply processing that the end had indeed happened — that the answer to the “what just happened?” question that I kept asking myself was quite simple: “He has died and left you alone, and now you must figure out how you will live for the rest of your life.”
Nearly five months later I think I’ve fully accepted the ending. I’m still very much in the neutral zone, where everything is scary and shifting underfoot, and the safest thing is to hunker down and let things simmer for a while. But I caught myself at dinner with friends last night laughingly imagining a first date with an unknown someone new. They were teasing me about the spreadsheet I’d have to create, with qualifications like vegetarian, runner, not afraid of heights, loves to travel. In case I have any secret admirers out there, I can guarantee that an invitation to go out to a movie is not going to win you a first date with me!
When I thought about it some more today, I found myself adding more qualifications to the list: well-educated, politically liberal, and so on — until I suddenly realized this was a highly narcissistic list! So much of the strength of Kurt’s and my relationship lay in our differences: he was outgoing, relentlessly optimistic, and opinionated; whereas I am introverted, cautiously skeptical, and (although opinionated) prone to see any issue from multiple perspectives and wind up saying only, “it depends.”
Which brings me to Robert Kegan. I loved his five-stage model of cognitive complexity partly because the last time I thought about it, I was a high-4 rapidly becoming a 5, which puts me in rather rare developmental territory. I’m no longer thinking so much about what’s good for me as what’s good for society, the species, all species, the earth, and beyond. Kegan says that it takes more than one life transformation a la Bridges before people can begin to make those transpersonal connections. A good social sciences graduate program that emphasizes critical thinking and making distinctions between epistemologies (ways of knowing) will help that process unfold as well. I can never look at anything through only one lens ever again… which sometimes has the effect of making seemingly easy decisions overly complex. Watch me grocery shopping and you’ll see what I mean!
I like to talk about my “epistemelogical crisis” in my second year of my PhD program; it was a genuine, crushing moment of realizing that I could not affirm that anything was objectively, indisputably “true,” because all “truth” is provisional pending future validation or refutation — but if I was ever going to graduate, I needed to find one thing that was true for me and build something from there. It was my Descartes moment, but instead of “I think, therefore I am,” it was “the earth feels solid, real, and meaningful to me — now, what is the essence of that experience and the meaning that I make of it?”
As I’ve written here before, I started running as I was finishing my PhD, because I didn’t like the ten pounds I’d gained, wasn’t happy with the physical therapist’s verdict that I’d never walk again without pain, and needed a new goal to stave off the post-degree depression I’d been warned about. Running became yet another way for me to make contact (in a quite literal way) with the earth, to experience and spend more time in beautiful places. When Kurt got sick, I kept running because it kept me (in a quite literal way) grounded.
Now I run because I really like running. I like getting leaner, faster, and more limber. I like that I’m standing a little taller. And I suppose, in a tiny corner of my mind, I like running because I have a glimmer of hope that somewhere out there, there is a someone resembling a well-educated vegetarian runner who is not afraid of heights, loves to travel, and might be looking to run into someone who is sort of like me.
A girl can dream. And I know what powerful things dreams can be.