Everything in this phenomenal world has at least one thing in common: it all had a beginning, and it all will come to an end. The length of time, as we measure it, between beginning and end may be fractions of a second or millions of years, yet every form of physical life has a beginning and an end. Within the experience of a human lifetime, we have innumerable beginnings and endings. Every breath, every activity, every relationship has a beginning and an end. Our physical body had a beginning, and it will have an end. Each beginning is a type of birth, each ending a type of death.
We in the Western world are generally not comfortable with death in any form. We tend to acknowledge and celebrate beginnings and to deny and to lament endings. We rejoice at a birth yet often see death as a tragedy. We celebrate weddings but tend to see divorce as a failure. Even a graduation ceremony, an obvious time to acknowledge an ending, is referred to as a “commencement” and the keynote speaker will typically address “the vast and limitless future that lies ahead.”
Certainly, there is much that is good and true contained within our social customs, yet often our conventional wisdom contains only half-truths. Good as it is that we celebrate beginnings, endings also need to be honored and perhaps even celebrated. We can truly experience a new beginning only when we have fully dealt with the ending that preceded it; otherwise, we simply carry the unfinished business of the past into the future.
Most of us do not handle endings very well. We have a tendency to either understate or overstate the importance of an ending. Let’s look first at the importance of an ending. The importance of an ending is understated when we fail to acknowledge the impact that it has on our lives, when we discount or minimize the effect it has on us. We may make statements such as “Let’s forget about the past and ‘get on’ with life.” Such a statement is valid within a certain context, but much of the time it is simply a cliché that we use to deny our true feelings about an ending.
One reason why we discount or minimize the importance of an ending is that it may be an attempt to manage the grief associated with a loss. Every ending is a loss, and grief is a normal response to loss. Grief is a painful emotion, and we instinctively try to protect ourselves from this pain. In addition, there may not be the emotional support needed from our family or friends to help us experience our grief. We may be admonished to "be strong" and to "stay in control." Except under rather restricted circumstances, our social customs generally don't support the experience of grief—especially with men.
As a result of our denial, many of us carry a reservoir of grief from previous losses in our life. Each ending may trigger this unresolved grief from the past as well as that from the current loss. If this seems too much to bear, we may attempt to avoid this pain with some form of denial or distraction. Tempting though it may be, this just adds to the "reservoir" and potentially creates more suffering. Consequently, we may become terrified of even a minor loss because of the "Pandora's box" that the next ending may open.
As we mentioned before, our culture has adopted somewhat of a "mechanistic" orientation toward life. This paradigm tends to see endings, especially unexpected endings, as a breakdown, as something "gone wrong." An unexpected ending may trigger our anxiety about the unpredictability of life. It may create a sense of being out of control and vulnerable to the apparent random events that impact and shape our lives. An unexpected ending does not fit into our vision of life functioning as a "well-oiled machine" that we personally operate.
To understate the importance of an ending is to discount its impact on our life, to not take it seriously enough. On the other hand, it is possible to take an ending too seriously, to overstate the impact that it has on our life. Two classic illustrations are with the lover who throws himself over a cliff when his sweetheart rejects him or with the millionaire who jumps off a bridge when his fortune is lost. There are other, less dramatic, ways that we may overstate the impact of an ending. Any time we see an ending as an absolute finality rather than the beginning of a transition process, we may be taking it too seriously.
Now, in one sense, every loss is permanent, otherwise, it would not be seen as a loss. To be sure, the person that died is gone permanently (in a physical sense); the relationship that ended probably is over for good; the lost circumstances of our life never will be exactly the same. However, what is not lost is the possibility of a new beginning. What is not lost permanently is our ability to live and to love and to enjoy life. In truth, as we accept endings as part of a greater life process, we ultimately increase our ability to live and love and enjoy life.
… We overstate the importance of an ending when we perceive that this emptiness and meaninglessness is a permanent condition rather than the passage to a new life. We overstate the importance of an ending when we believe that the lost person, possession, or circumstance was that which gave our lives meaning and that without this outer condition our happiness is lost forever.
I often counsel my students to honor endings but not to worship them. To worship an ending is to give it more power than it deserves, to make it bigger than you are. To honor an ending is to acknowledge the impact that it has on our life; it is to honor the people and experiences that were important in our life; it is to honor the divine wisdom and order that govern every aspect of our life if we but have eyes to see it. …
It is especially important that we turn to the God of our understanding during these times of passage. Ironically, this is often a time when our faith in everything, including God, is shaken. Yet, if we can but realize it, the possibility for an entirely new understanding of God—and a new relationship with God—is emerging. Each transition allows us the opportunity for a "bigger God" than the one we once believed in. We can realize that God is not only guiding us through the transition but is the very force that is bringing about the transition—and the resultant transformation.