Most of your life will flow by in a fairly steady stream, with days following similar days, weeks following similar weeks, and so on. But every so often you’ll pass through a change so profound that it fundamentally alters the way you see the world—a genuinely existential transition. Often such transitions will be brought on by big events:
- Moving out to live on your own for the first time.
- Getting married.
- Having a child. (Then another. And another!)
- Losing a parent.
- Losing a job.
- Facing a serious illness.
Some such events are wonderful; others are awful; still others are a bit of both. What they all have in common is that they’re seriously disorienting. They upend the structures and alter the meanings that otherwise order our worlds.
It’s tempting to say that they force us to reconsider what’s really important. But it’s more accurate to say that they change the very scales of consideration. It’s not that you suddenly consider family more important when you have a child; it’s that what you consider “family” fundamentally changes. It’s not that you necessarily value home more after you move out; it’s that you realize what “home” means in a different way. It’s not that you suddenly appreciate “life” more when confronted with death; it’s that everything in your life suddenly appears in a new light, with different weights and colors and connotations.
Such transitions don’t just prompt you to reassess the things you’ve always seen; they actually cause you to see new things, or at any rate to see things anew. It’s a little like putting glasses on for the first time and seeing the leaves on the trees. You already knew what leaves were, and you already knew where to find them. But that didn’t mean that you could really see them there—or even imagine what seeing them there would be like.
Expecting Existential Transitions
Until you’ve been through at least a few such transitions, it’s hard to imagine that the meanings of terms like “family,” “home,” “life,” and “death,” can change fundamentally—not merely at the level of dictionary definition, but at the level of lived experience through which the definitions themselves take on significance. But it’s important to know that they can and someday will.
It’s also important to know that, when they do, you aren’t going crazy. You’re going through an existential transition. Hard as it may be to imagine in the moment, when your world has turned upside-down, there’s a “new normal” waiting on the other side of this existential change, which will more or less hold until the next one arrives.
You’ll find a way through, perhaps simply by continuing to move forward. And you’ll emerge stronger and wiser in many ways, if never quite the same as you were before.
Preparing for Existential Transitions
There isn’t really much you can do to prepare for such transitions, as the you that might prepare is part and parcel of what will change. The best you can do, I suspect, is read a lot—especially fiction. After all, the stories we humans tell often focus on precisely such transitions, and so help us imagine the pathways that lead from one way of seeing to another.
At their best, such stories remind us that the meanings we piece together at any given time can’t (and don’t) contain the rolling thunder of real existence. At the same time, they enable us to take hold of that rolling thunder and sometimes even steer it–or at least to go along for the ride rather than always being taken for one.
If we pay attention, they may also help us understand that seeing things differently is only rarely a matter of stripping away illusions to reveal a simple truth. More often, it’s a matter of adding new layers of complexity, detail, and depth to our understanding. It involves learning to see the leaves upon the branches, and the branches amid the trees, and the trees making up the forest, each in turn–and then noticing that the forest reaches up and down and out in all directions.
In the end, we aren’t equipped to see it all at once. We’re equipped to keep exploring. And that makes for imperfect knowledge but wonderful stories. It makes for existential transitions and for the chance to see deeper, not just differently–sort of like the way I see you.