What if you were the only passenger walking in an airport at midnight? It happened to me. I was on the last flight into Dulles Airport in Washington, D. C. Airport stores were shuttered, reservation desks empty, passengers gone. Not a person in sight. How eerie to hear my own footsteps! I looked behind me in case something—or someone—was creeping up on me. After the discomfort of walking the long terminal, I shifted my mood. Wouldn’t it be fun to wear tap shoes and tap dance along the smooth floors, all the way to the baggage claim? Unfortunately, I had no tap shoes.
Metaphors like an airport help explain the strangeness of transitions. People often use them in explaining their own transition: flying in a plane, rowing a boat on rough seas, being on a high-speed train without an engineer, walking through a forest with a small flashlight. Journey metaphors capture the uncertainty and challenge of that journey. In my own transition dreams, I miss my plane, or I cannot find my car, and or I am on a train going in the wrong direction. Dreams and metaphors tell me where I really am in a transition.
Transition metaphors conceal and also reveal what is happening to you. In my airport example, the airport has its familiar structure and functions. But it’s not quite the same: it’s cock-eyed, silent, and empty. Imagine yourself in that situation. Would you feel spooked, cautious, stimulated? These reactions are signatures of our life transitions.
Airplanes are the links between the place where you have been and the place you are going to. They represent the In-Between of transitions, neither what was before nor what is ahead. The plane you are traveling on is suspended in the air, guided by unseen forces. I often refer to the “airplane conversation” in transitions. A recent study suggests that almost half of all plane passengers strike up a conversation with someone. The stranger sitting next to you might tell you about the pain of her divorce, his concerns about his grandkids, or the excitement of going to live in a new country. The plane lands, and you never see that person again, which is part of the freedom in a transition.
Pay close attention to the metaphors guiding you in your transition, revealing to you things you cannot explain easily. If someone else is struggling to share his transition with you, ask, “What is this feeling like? What would you compare this to?” Maybe riding a roller coaster, hiking through the mountains, building a house, or playing the piano while wearing mittens. Dig into the details of the metaphor to see where it will take you. Learn from metaphors about your strength and your power to create new possibilities in a transition.
And keep your tap shoes handy.