“When faced with a feeling of stagnation or confusion, it may be helpful to take an hour, an afternoon or even several days to reflect on what it is that will truly bring us happiness” Howard Cutler
I’m currently reading Independence Day by the immensely talented Richard Ford. His protagonist, Frank Boscombe, mid 40s, bereaved and divorced, five years ago walked out of his career as a sports writer and entered what he terms his “Existance Period”. His life, though outwardly mobile – new job, home, relationships, all appearing to be hanging togther, inwardly is cruising in neutral. His acceptance, and naming of the directionless eddy in which he has foundered seems to me a rare thing. For how many people do you know who would acknowledge, even to themselves that they are not heading anywhere?
I find the admission liberating as I didn’t know we were allowed to do that. Surely we must always be heading somewhere? Setting goals, seeking new challenges and striving for greater sucess? That’s what I was brought up to believe. And that’s how life is structured too, certainly in the early years of school, university, professional qualifications, promotions and new jobs. And yet, I suddenly don’t know what it is I want to strive for anymore.
This fills me with panic – surely I must be heading somewhere. If I don’t know where, I just need to look harder, look faster and then I’ll find it. But is this the right approach?
Not for William Bridges who, in his wonderful book Transitions, calls it The Neutral Zone. He says that every major life transition, such as career change, has three stages which must all be dealt with – An Ending, The Neutral Zone and A New Beginning. Bridges draws attention to how we have lost our appreciation of this gap in continuity. The emptiness now only indicates an absence – one that we try to fill as quickly as possible, either by rushing forward to inappropriate new realities or, when possible, scuttling back to where we came from. “But you don’t see” says the man who approached him after a lecture. “I’m nowhere and I want to get somewhere”.
In reality, a career change can happen instantaneously – as if you have been unplugged from one role and plugged into another. But the interior transition takes longer and requires personal transformation before that sense of being dislocated is lost.
But what if you’ve swum away from one shore and can’t yet see the other side? Instead of panicking and thrashing aimlessly forward – or backwards, try just floating for a while. Watch the clouds and give yourself the gift of your own Neutral Zone. Use the time to learn – about yourself or to see the world differently or to gain new skills. Focus on enriching your life. Practise mindfulness and stay in the moment.
After all, you’ve been moving forward all your life, a little break won’t hurt.