Shrestha Singh is the Hindu Chaplain.

This past semester, my third as a Brandeis chaplain, I have had the honor of teaching “First Year Experience: Spirit, Mind, and Body,” a class that supports first-year students as they begin their first semesters of college. In our second class session, this group of driven and thoughtful first-years shared with one another their experiences of transitioning to college. They talked about learning to share space with roommates, missing home, balancing their and their families’ expectations, the pressure to perform and, of course, how to do all this while getting their homework done! I was reminded during our conversation that this fall season, a season of endings and beginnings, is a chaotic one, not only for first-years, but for all students, and for staff and faculty as well. 

The fall for us school-goers can mark the loss of less structured days, the loss of a summer experience or time away from Brandeis, or the loss of an old way of being. With that comes the anxiety of entering into something new and its associated questions: what will the year be like? Will I be able to handle it? How will I keep in touch with the friends I spent time with over the summer? What if I don’t do well in this class? Can I keep things from changing?

In an excerpt of a book I assigned to my students, Managing Transitions by Dr. William Bridges, Bridges writes about the three stages of transitions: “Endings,” “The Neutral Zone” and “The New Beginning.” During “endings,” he writes, we supposedly disconnect and disengage from our previous roles. A teen becoming an adult, for example, may disconnect and disengage for some time from their high school friends. A woman getting married may find herself no longer going bar-hopping with her single friends as she enters into a more settled and mature phase of her life. In the “neutral zone,” we find ourselves between stages. We haven’t crystallized our new identities and are still in the process of letting go of the old one. Think of the caterpillar in its chrysalis — it is not quite a butterfly, but no longer the soft creature that once inched along the leaf. This “neutral zone” is an uncomfortable space in which to exist, a space in which we may feel unsure of ourselves and out of our element. We may not know what will come as we undergo a transformation. At the end of it, however, we arrive at a “beginning,” a space in which we have aligned ourselves with our new identities and enter more solidly and confidently into it.

Reflect on your own life for a moment. In which places do you feeling you are ending one phase and beginning another? 

In his book, Bridges mourns the loss of rituals that allow us to feel these transitions deeply and to devote our time and energy to them. There was once a time when those who were undergoing transitions carved out time, space, and rituals that facilitated and sanctified the process. We still do visible rituals for some key moments in our lives — quinceañeras, bat and bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, and funerals — but our willingness to take the time to emotionally and mentally process these and other transitions breakups, birthdays, new seasons, the end of a friendship, moving in with friends, etc. — seems compromised in our current culture. Not only that, but we don’t like to admit that even positive changes like getting married, having a kid, or going off to college can be accompanied by feelings of sadness, confusion, and grief. 

Recently, I was talking with my husband, who is a pastor, about death — what else do those of us in the spiritual professions talk about? I shared that in the Hindu tradition I was raised in, women often wear white for some time after their husbands die, signifying that they are in mourning. Several centuries ago, it was customary in the West for those who had lost a loved one to wear black armbands for months to communicate to others that they were in the process of grieving. 

Nowadays, however, we experience life’s changes and get a few days or weeks leave at most before we get back to the “same old, same old.” While I was at my previous job, I got into a car accident in which my husband and I spun across all four lanes of the highway, miraculously missing other vehicles, and ended up crashing into the highway median before stopping. We ended up with a totaled car, but with our bodies somehow intact. I returned to work that week, shaken but in one piece, and was surprised by the tacit expectation that I go about business as usual. Besides my officemate, few colleagues followed up to see how I was doing. I had almost died! How could business resume as usual? How could I not pause for a moment? The expectation was absurd. 

When I got a replacement car about a month later, I had my friends in the spiritual professions gather around my new vehicle and offer it and me a blessing. To drive again after a traumatic event is no small thing, and I wanted to honor that transition and give room to some of the anxiety around returning to the road again. It calmed my rapidly beating heart.

Brandeisians, honor life’s transitions. Speeding by them because we live in a culture in which there is “no time” to reflect and feel our feelings keeps us from bearing witness to the incredible growth and shift that is happening within us. One of my favorite quotes by the poet Alice Walker reads: 

Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life [...]

 We are all in a process of becoming. This is what our journeys here at Brandeis, and throughout life, are about. When we let ourselves experience our own becoming, trusting the process and letting its uncomfortable and surprising waves move through us, we emerge wiser and more self-aware.