As we look forward to the 7th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality to be held in Chicago in June, 2017, I find myself reflecting on its theme, “Transition and Transcendence: Transforming Aging through Spirituality” in a number of ways.
First of all, I’m gratified that at the end of the 6th Conference that was hosted in Los Angeles by the CLH Center for Spirituality and Aging, the decision was made to try to have another such conference in the United States to continue to raise awareness of this amazing conference and the rich resources it brings to bear on the journey of aging. And I’m thrilled that the baton was passed to Lydia Manning and the Center for Gerontology at Concordia University in Chicago. They are hard at work to put together another memorable conference. It’s been a smooth transition!
I also find myself thinking about the theme of the 6th Conference, “Paradox and Promise in the Spiritual Pilgrimage of Aging” as it related to the theme of “Transition and Transcendence.” As William Bridges noted many years ago in his book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, all transitions begin with an ending. We often find ourselves in a paradoxical situation when we have to acknowledge that a good thing has come to an end. When endings come we often find ourselves experiencing both gratitude and grief. Gratitude for the good we’ve gained, grief for its passing.
In his book Bridges notes that our desire is to move immediately from an ending to a new beginning. But he posits that transitions are traversed best when we make space for what he called “the neutral zone,” that time when we take in the ramifications of the ending and allow time for confusion and discernment before we take on a new beginning. It’s in this “neutral zone” where we seek the promise of what may come. And it’s in this neutral zone that we have the possibilities of transcendence and transformation.
For it’s in this neutral zone that we have space to look back, take strength from transitions we’ve traversed in the past, and where we can be open to possibilities we haven’t even thought of yet. It’s a profoundly spiritual time, where trust and hope can be nourished. Because it’s difficult to live in ambiguity, we often struggle to stay in this neutral zone, and are tempted to jump to a new beginning before the work of that zone is finished. It’s here where we need support and companions, companions who wait with us for the gradual unfolding of the new thing that awaits us.
We who serve older adults know that in aging endings can come often and new beginnings sometimes seem in short supply. We have many opportunities to be present in endings and to stay present in the neutral zone. Our ability to stay present in that neutral zone with them will depend to some degree on our ability to stay in that zone in our own transitions. As my seminary pastoral care professor said, “We can travel with those who serve only to the extent that we’ve been present to deep experiences in our own life.”
As we get ready to meet around the theme of “Transitions and Transcendence: Transforming Aging through Spirituality,” I invite you to reflect on your own transition experiences. What are the insights and learnings you bring from “the neutral zone?” I’m looking forward to a time of rich sharing of much wisdom in service to the elders we serve in the many transitions they experience when we meet in Chicago.