Change catches us off guard all the time, but it doesn't always sneak up on us from the outside. Some of the biggest impulses for change surprise us by coming from the inside. That can be hard to make sense of because we are so used to constantly needing to respond to the events, expectations and relationships of our lives–but it is true! External events, outer changes make sense in a certain way because they adhere to the laws of cause and effect. If we suffer a loss or are experiencing a lot of anxiety related to an upcoming event we could place our feelings into that context and gain some consolation. In other words we learn to say: I feel this way because that happened. We know that significant loss brings grief and disorientation. We also know that the anxiety of anticipation can easily exhaust us as we try to make sure that everything has been properly considered and prepared. Those are painful experiences but they can be rationally understood. What happens when a life change starts inside of us and therefore doesn't necessarily match any of the outer circumstances around us? It can leave us frightened and confused because there is no immediate reason for feelings of grief or anxiety that seemingly well up out of nowhere. But those experiences are much less random than we might think.
Those kind of inwardly initiated changes actually happen all the time, we just are not always aware of their rhythm or purpose. When we are younger, these biographical phases of change are linked to observable physical, developmental changes that make it easier to put them in context. But what would it be like if we didn't have a framework for understanding them? Imagine how it would be if a child reaching the age of six or seven started to have her teeth get loose, sore, then fall out, but she had no understanding of why that was happening. It would be very scary. She might worry: How will I eat? Am I sick? Did I do something wrong? Maybe I should have brushed my teeth more often? Of course, as adults, we know that it is necessary for a child to lose his or her baby teeth in order for the larger teeth of an older child and adult to take their place. We know why this happens and recognize it is an appropriate sign of growth and maturation. We celebrate it and the child is usually rewarded with special prizes for the loss of these teeth! We speak of the tooth fairy and that helps to put the child's changing body–which literally pushes the old teeth out–into the proper context. This phase of growth is about more than just teeth, however, for if we look more closely we can recognize that the child is not only growing into another set of teeth but also gaining new capacities for abstract learning and memory (the mark of truly being ready to begin academic learning).
A second, similarly important confusion could come if an early adolescent girl began her menstrual cycles without knowing what is happening. Suddenly there is bleeding that comes without injury, bleeding and cramping so unexpected that the girl might think that she is dying. Hopefully every adolescent girl has help and guidance so that this experience never happens, but the impression of there being a kind of small death is not entirely inappropriate. The bleeding of each menstrual cycle does represent a release of the built-up uterine lining which is no longer needed. Its release is necessary so that the cycle can begin anew. In a larger developmental context, the beginning of menstrual periods (and adolescent physical changes in general) marks the transition from the body of a child to that of an adult capable of reproduction. It is recognized in many traditional cultures as a tremendously important passage into womanhood. But we don't honor it in the same way nowadays. We still recognize its physical effects, but usually relegate it to the “somewhat-uncomfortable-to-speak-about” parts of sex-ed. That physical change is part of the much larger transformation that adolescence brings to our bodies, our relationships, and our perceptions of self and the world around us. These changes also happen for boys of course, just with the changes spread out over a longer span of time. Both the arrival of adult teeth in the seventh year and the physical changes of adolescence are significant, inwardly initiated developmental shifts. They are just the first of many.
In truthfulness, cycles of renewal continue to come to us about every seven years. Only the continuing seven-year rhythms do not carry such easily observable outer physical changes. Every seven years we are asked to do an inventory of our lives so that we can move forward with what is needed and let go of behaviors, patterns, connections that now really belong to the past. For the third seven-year rhythm that feels totally appropriate because most people in their twenty-first year are finding new independence, shifting away from the family home, and moving into a phase of exploration and self-discovery. It's very exciting, but also somewhat disconcerting, as many of our previous orientation points fall away. The “loosening” needed to move forward requires courage to make changes. And some of the seven-year biographical nodes are about finding the courage to make our outer lives different. But there are other times when we still find ourselves questioning the appropriateness of our outer lives (jobs, relationships, location, etc.) when in fact the real change needed is to shift our inner compass, to more truthfully ask the question: “Am I being true to who I really am?” Biographical crisis points shake things up and ask us to reconsider all that we are doing, even when we may not be in a place where we can make big outer changes. It is then disconcerting to inexplicably feel like nothing really fits any more and wonder why we are suddenly questioning all kinds of things we should be content with. But this is a natural, and predictable, part of biographical growth around 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56 and 63 years of age. If you are at one of those points, hopefully it is reassuring to hear that you are right on time for a window of change, which might be outer or inner. Regardless, this happens to help us get unstuck. Someday we will become better able to observe and recognize these rhythms and then we wouldn't just celebrate the tooth fairy, or an adolescent passage into early womanhood, but we would create stories and rituals to recognize all of these transitions. Just because you are an adult doesn't mean you don't keep growing and changing…