May 12, 2020
I came across a Facebook challenge recently that asked people to post their senior year pictures from high school to show solidarity to graduates who are not allowed to have their graduation or commencement exercises. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have worked so hard to reach a goal and not be able to celebrate its accomplishment. Graduation ceremonies are being postponed or cancelled all over the country.
Can you imagine being an 18 year old today? Can you imagine having to imagine your place in a world marked by pandemic?
Can you imagine having to answer those questions like “What’s next for you?” or “Where are you going from here?”
Can you imagine trying to see the future in a time when everything is hard and nothing is clear?
It’s strange to think that these kids won’t be able to celebrate their accomplishments with the same pomp and circumstance we did. Most of us graduated high school with a plan. Either four more years of college or a couple more years of trade school and then a career, maybe a family. We were able to dream about where we would be five years from now. We were free to imagine a future with hopeful anticipation. We were able to negotiate transitions because we had the audacity to see a future worth reaching for.
Our cultural ritual of graduation is more than a simple means of conferring degrees. We can mail those once all the work is done. The ritual of graduation is how we as a culture make sense of times of transitions. We celebrate the ending of our childhoods when we graduate from high school. We celebrate our preparedness for life in the real world when we graduate from college or graduate school. We use these events as launching pads where we push ourselves off the limbs of the tree to fly in an open sky.
We celebrate the transitions from learning something to practicing something. It’s a time to celebrate the past with its hardships and challenges and look forward to the future with its hopes and dreams. It’s about saying goodbye to old friends who have walked with us for so long and preparing ourselves to make new friends and allies as we journey forward. This is how we practice the life long skill of future building.
When we learn to celebrate what is ending and look forward to what is beginning, we learn from an early age to navigate the most difficult task of grief. The skills we learned when we said goodbye to our high school friends are the same skills we will need to navigate grief for the rest of our lives. In our current season of grief and loss, it is of paramount importance to practice future building.
But that skill takes time and patience to put into practice. There are a few things we have to do before we can truly begin dreaming about a future. The transition time between loss and reorganization is sacred. It must be tended to with intention and patience. It is during the transition from past (before the loss when we felt whole) to future (when we reorganize and reorient) that we learn and develop new skills for navigating a brave new world.
This is the urgent vocation of now. Now, exactly where you stand in all of its pain and messiness, is precisely where you need to be. The future may be fuzzy and unclear. For some of us, it might feel down right impossible to see. That’s ok, my dear. All shall be clear in its own time.
Over the weekend I watched Frozen 2. I’ve never seen a kids movie that deals with grief so aptly as this film. There are several themes, in fact, threaded throughout the film that make it a remarkable exposition of all the things we are facing today. There’s as scene were Elsa and Anna are trying to make sense of a situation that puts everyone in their community in danger. They look to the sage troll king Grand Pabbie for guidance. Grand Pabbie shows them visions of past and present. But in the end, not even the Troll King can see the future.
That’s when he tells Anna some of the best advice I’ve ever heard about future building. Grand Pabbie says “the past is not what it seems. A wrong demands to be righted. The truth must be found. Without it, I see no future. When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” I was blown away by the simplicity and freedom of this phrase. The next right thing! That’s all expected of us. Not some grand overture or some insurmountable task. All we have to do, especially during the times of transition when we can’t see the future, all we have to do is the next right thing.
I get this sentiment often from patients and their caregivers. There seems to be so much coming at them. Their loss has knocked them off balance and all they see is the wall of the tsunami about to crash over them. How do you take it all in? How do you survive something so big? How do you keep from drowning in the fear, anxiety, and insurmountable wall of despair?
I used to tell them the trick to eating an elephant is taking one bite at a time. Now I’m going to tell them the only step they have to take is the next one. The next right thing is easier to do at the base of the mountain. It is nearly impossible to see or imagine the top. There’s too much in between that threatens to undo us or knock us off the cliffs. But taking one step at a time, one right thing at a time, allows us to operate in the world of the possible. We might not be able to say where we will be in five years, but we can choose to take a step forward, then another, and another. All along the way, step by step, choice by choice, we build a future. The way is made by walking.
Below is a link to a song Anna sings about her grief and the heaviness of it. I leave you today with this song and the admonishment to do the next right thing. Everything else will find its place in time.