Life on the trapeze

Change.  Transition.  That sense of being in-between, of being on the way from point A to point B.

Are we ever done with it?

At points A and B, we feel more settled and secure.  We know what to expect out of life; no one’s changing the rules of the game.  But then people go from being single to being married, to having a baby who becomes a toddler then a school-aged child then…a teenager.  At each stage along the way, some change and adjustment is needed, and some changes, of course, are more difficult than others.

Think of all the transitions we go through in life.  People get new jobs, or retire or get laid off from their old ones.  Couples not only marry, but separate and divorce.  Organizations go through leadership changes, sometimes several at a time.  A loved one is inflicted with a terminal disease.  Families struggle through the “long goodbye” of Alzheimer’s.

Change, by its very nature, can be unsettling.  The more tightly we cling to things as they are, the more difficult it is to embrace what will be.

Yesterday morning, in a devotional reflection on the anxious uncertainty that can be provoked by change, a colleague of mine read a passage from Joyce Rupp’s book, Open the Door.  Rupp likens the experience of liminality (literally, of standing on a “threshold” of change) to flying on a trapeze:

Once the handle is released there is nothing to hold onto until the handle on the other side is caught.  We are no more sure of what lies beyond the threshold than the trapeze artist flying into the open in-between space knows for sure she will catch the other handle (p. 99).

For me, as one who isn’t terribly fond of heights, the image nicely captures that moment of fearful weightlessness that comes before freefall.  To be sure, I’ve never tried swinging on a real trapeze, so I’m no expert on the subject.  But at the risk of pushing it beyond its limits, I’d like to qualify Rupp’s trapeze metaphor with three further principles that I assume must be true of learning the art.

Principle # 1: You can’t learn how to fly until you learn how to fall.

First things first.  No one is expected to catch the bar right from the start.  Aspiring trapeze artists can’t catch a bar fluidly if their bodies are rigid with the fear of failure.  So while spectators may sit in awe of how gracefully these acrobats fly, they forget that learning to fall gracefully into a net probably came first.

Principle # 2: You can’t fly by yourself.

Trapeze artists don’t work solo.  Trusting that the bar will be in the right place at the right time means trusting a partner with whom you’ve worked long and hard to develop a synchronous rhythm.

Principle # 3: To some extent, the goal is for flying to become automatic.

Practice, practice, practice.  This is what psychologists call procedural memory: the unconscious routines that have become as automatic as riding a bike.  I doubt that experienced trapeze artists actually spend much time worrying about where the bar is going to be; they work more by muscle memory than conscious calculation.

The point?  The trapeze metaphor does a better job of capturing the uncertainty of change and transition if we imagine someone who is still learning as opposed to a seasoned aerialist.  That’s not to say that veterans don’t experience a twinge of anxiety now and again.  But it might be useful to ask ourselves what it takes to become a veteran in the first place.

Even the Christian life can feel like a trapeze act.  Biblically speaking, I don’t think we can take settledness as the norm, at least not in this lifetime.  So as we learn to “fly” more gracefully in the midst of all the flux and flow of life, perhaps it would be good to use a little imagination and ponder on these questions:

  • Into what net must we learn to fall with faith and grace, and how?
  • Who are our flying partners, and how do we develop a trustworthy rhythm together?
  • To learn to fly, what practices must we engage again and again until they become ingrained?

What do you think?