It's that time of year again. The time when questions about the future start. When black, silver, and gold decorations fill the endcaps in Target. When the dreaded F word starts to circulate. You know what it is:
Which means the end of another academic year.
Which means graduation.
Which means transition...for everyone. From the seniors who either know their next steps or are still awaiting emails or phone calls of acceptance as they ready to don their cap and gown, to juniors who begin to feel the anxiety and reality of almost being finished becomes really real. From leaving behind the sophomore slump that became a painful reality, to escaping that "freshman" label and finally joining the elite ranks of "upper classmen" (can I get an amen?!). (And I'm not even touching the family members, friends, and other communities who are also impacted!)
All eyes and focus shifts forward, and yet reactions towards this impending transition vary from person to person. Some are trapped under the suffocating blanket of finals, anxiety making it harder and harder to breathe, much less function. Some are moving like zombies just to get to summer, to get away, so that they can finally live once more. Some want to forget all about finals or schoolwork because they're already emotionally checked out of school and into their future job, internship, graduate school, etc.
What doesn't help is that every question being asked of these students enhances their forward living (I use "living" here rather than "thinking" because "living" captures the combination of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of how they're doing life): "What are you doing after graduation?" "What are your summer plans?" "Have you found a summer job yet?" "What are your classes next semester?"
And what's worse, we all seem to know that these are the wrong questions to be asking, but we don't know what else to ask (you're looking at the queen here). We have no idea how else to create conversation, no idea what else to ask, so we ask these questions that we think are creating conversation and engaging with others, but in effect, we're reiterating the mentality of "always be looking to the next best thing." Always be looking to the summer. Always be looking to the next milestone.
There is so much pressure to be forward living that transitions suddenly become these massive green-eyed monsters that haunt us during every waking and sleeping moment.
So how do we recapture the beauty of transition? How do we ask good questions that help students (and ourselves) be better about living in present moments rather than propelled headlong into an unknown and anxiety inducing future we have no control over?
Perhaps the best course of action is to swing in the opposite direction: the past.
Perhaps, rather than asking so many questions in regards to their futures, we should be asking them to reflect back on their past. Questions like, where were you when you were seventeen/eighteen? What did you expect college to be like? What most surprised you about college? Where were you a year ago today? How have you changed over the past year? What have you learned about yourself?
These were the types of questions my seminary friends and I would ask each other. As seminary friends are getting ready to graduate, and as I reflect back on my own final year of seminary a year ago, I'm reminded of these questions we used to ask each other. It was cathartic to ask, to listen, to think through, and then respond.
What I had no idea of then, but I have learned now, is this: reflective questions about our past enable us to find truths for our present. When we can reflect back on our past, on those moments of significant transition, we are able to name our prior expectations and discern the roots that kept us grounded throughout those times of transition.
Here's an example of what I mean: I was sitting with a student and started asking him about his transition from high school into college. "What surprised you most about college?" I asked him. "You have to learn to take care of yourself," he told me. "Your parents aren't there anymore, so you have to figure out how to take care of you."
Whether this student realized it or not, care was the very thing he and countless others need during this transition time. Self-care is hugely important, and it's making the slow realizations that during transition we need more care to sustain us than usual. I'm convinced this is also when we need spiritual practices more than anything, why we need to build up our "spiritual tool boxes" (as my spiritual director affectionately termed it). I hate running, but I went running frequently during this time a year ago as I was getting to graduate seminary, a handful of interviews, but no job in place. As I ran, I would regulate my breathing by breathing in, "trust in God," and breathing out, "surrender all." Even now, on days that I struggle the most, I go running and start my breathing exercise, desperate for the reminder that the God who sustained me and was present with me a year ago continues to be present with me today.
We need to have practices that ground us, to be reminded during the changes that there is a God who does not change. That there is a God who is present with us through our transitions, who was present with us in our late teens, who is present with us when we leave college, when we graduate from masters and doctoral programs, when we experience the death of loved ones, when new relationships form and evolve, when new life enters into the world, we need those reminders through spiritual practices like running with our breathing mantras. Like listening to music and meditating on the lyrics that stand out to us, letting them sink in and nourish our souls. Like practicing gratitude and asking ourselves at the end of every day what we are most and least thankful for. Like entering worship and taking a moment to join with others, sitting and delighting in the presence of God. For it is in and through worship that the demands of life wash away, and we encounter the holy ground of the Almighty, who grounds us and is with us through every final paper, graduation ceremony, and transition of life.