Author Note: This essay is part of a chapter from a book that’s currently in-progress.

Transitions define our lives. From birth to death, we’ll undoubtedly move through various stages and movements. Moreover, there seems to be very little that we can do to avoid the ebb and flow of life. Physically speaking, life itself is a transitional concept. The movements from childhood, adulthood, and finally old age are ones we have little to no control over. Physically we’ll undergo a number of changes to our bones, cells, height, weight, and so on. And yet, these transitions go beyond the physical. Until our end, we’ll experience numerous developmental milestones. The ways we look at and interact with our world will undoubtedly change across life’s numerous stages. From youthful play to the weariness of maturity, we’re destined to change both physically and mentally—whether we like it or not.

Indeed, such transitions mark both the difficulty and joy of human existence. We’re shuffled from one point to the next, often with marginal control over how that transition will play out. Often such transitions are bittersweet—the agony of growing older, leaving behind old friends, setting aside those things that once brought us joy. And yet, part of life’s joy is experiencing new situations and discovering the world around us. Without such transitions, life surely would feel hollow and trite, an unfortunate caricature of existence. It’s the transitions of life, our continual movement between stages and unknown situations that make life so rewarding. The movement between life’s stages, within those indeterminate and unknown pathways, are etched onto our existence. Life changes us. Sometimes these changes are subtle, leaving us barely aware of the effect life’s passage as had on us mentally and physically. At other times, life’s transitions are bold and dramatic. Graduation, marriage, the birth of a child, or the loss of a loved one can throw us toward an unknown future. Sometimes we’re prepared for these transitions, but many times we’re not. But what’s clear is that such transitions change us. How they do so isn’t always clear, but their effects (at least in hindsight) are remarkably noticeable.

 We’re not the same people we were last year, and while our individual uniqueness remains unique, it’s this very uniqueness that changes over the course of decades. As such, this constant transition between life’s stages, its twists and turns, means that each of us are continually in a process of a personal evolution. Life is a transitional phenomenon, one in which we have only marginal control over. Surely, we make decisions, choosing some opportunities over others, but we make much of those decisions with little to no knowledge of the result. Consequently, our decisions are entry ways into the unknown. Each of our decisions, both small and life changing, are opportunities to embrace mystery. What happens when we make a decision? The decisions we make—from choosing a career, to entering (or leaving) a relationship, beginning a family, and so on—are conscious, perhaps even unconscious, leaps into ambiguity. Furthermore, we even hold rituals, both secular and religious, to mark such decisions. Marriage is an obvious one of course, with significant amounts of time and money devoted to celebrating the occasion, but we also hold social gatherings and get-togethers to mark other significant transitional moments—starting a new job, beginning or ending one’s education, moving into a new home, and many more. As social creatures, it’s customary to mark our new journeys, the significant (and sometimes not so significant) decisions we embark upon. Thus, our lives are a series of beginnings, transitions, and movements marked by celebratory (perhaps even mournful) cultural rituals. In fact, one might go so far to say that life itself is the ultimate ritual. We enter and leave one transitional moment to the next, but truly there is no escape from life’s constant movement and flux. The steps we take as we move from one decisional doorway to the next are all but microcosms of a much greater phenomenon—existence itself.

Yet, such ritualism entails that life’s transitional character isn’t something restricted to individual experience. Indeed, part of what makes this life so momentous and impactful are the social and cultural transitions we collectively share. It’s neither profound nor insightful to state that society is transitional. A quick glance at human history is enough for us to see that society has and will continue to move toward some unknown future. Indeed, individual and social changes correlate with one another. Thus, it’s undoubtedly a truism to suggest that it’s impossible to have significant social change without the individuals who comprise that society. History comprises the complex dynamics between social and individual transition. Erich Fromm reminds us of this fact, stating, “Man’s [sic] nature, his passions, and anxieties are a cultural product . . . man himself is the most important creation and achievement of the continuous human effort, the record of which we call history.”[1] Therefore, even a preliminary glance at history suggests that transition and change occurs at levels that are both individual and social. That is, we’re shaped by our collective history—it’s culture, traditions, trajectory, and so on—while also retaining that individual spark that helps to shape our collective history. Fromm also remind us that “man [sic] is not only made by history—history is made by man.”[2] As such, we’re ushered through multiple layers of transitions—some social, others individual—bound together toward an unknown and undefinable future. Meaning that, socially speaking, our continual transitions lead us toward a new uniqueness. A uniqueness that we both possess and share. This dynamic between collective and individual history means that each transition—from the mundane to the significant—is an opportunity to explore both important psychological and social changes. As we change, so does our history. And as our history changes, so do we. Consequently, Fromm suggests that “the history of man [sic] can be characterized as a process of growing individuation and growing freedom.”[3] That is history is a process that ideally sets us on a path toward a developed individuality, one tied but not restricted to our social circumstances. Thus, at least in theory, history is both individually and collectively transitional. Moreover, being transitional, we might also consider history as ritual.

“The meaning of our actions is rarely obvious until we undertake the backward glance of history. Even still, there’s no guarantee that the story we extrapolate from our actions holds any degree of accuracy.”

So, for a moment let’s consider both life and history—the individual and the social—as a transitional process. At any point we might face decisions of individual and collective importance. Sometimes these moments overlap, our individual actions within a democracy for example. At other times, our individual actions seem to have little relevance toward significantly shaping our community or greater society—mundane decisions about going to the store, what to buy for dinner, what to watch on television, to name a few. And yet, collectively these decisions have much to say about who we are as a society. Our individual actions, particularly everyday ones, continually help to define, shape, and direct our collective history. Though small, we each form part of the history that we share. We usher forth history, ritualistically speaking, into the indeterminate and the unknown. As both priest and participant, our actions are both defined by and define history. Hannah Arendt highlights the complexity of this relationship by reminding us that history itself is an action driven story. She writes, “That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end. But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of mankind [sic], with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action.” [4]

Arendt rightly returns our gaze of history back toward action. Human beings are neither the puppets of history nor directed by a “invisible hand behind the scene, so that man [sic] seems to be a kind of plaything of a god.”[5] Instead, she tackles the question of history—i.e. the relationship between humanity and history, by affirming history’s real story as action driven. The real story is an interplay between the two and the unpredictability that naturally arises within this relationship. Human unpredictability, often in response to and because of history, demonstrates the importance of process. Furthermore, this unpredictability enables us to “conceive of both nature and history as systems of process.”[6] Systems of process, whether large or small, contributes to unpredictability of life. Life and history, along with nature, transition from one point to the next without much clarity as to their beginning and end. Moreover, it’s only in hindsight that we’re able to make any reasonable determinations about what anything was really about. The meaning of our actions is rarely obvious until we undertake the backward glance of history. Even still, there’s no guarantee that the story we extrapolate from our actions holds any degree of accuracy.[7]

Thus, we act within the flux, the unknowable sphere between life and history. Consequently, we’re unable to make any action within history with complete certainty and knowledge. Every action we take moves us a bit closer toward that indeterminate state between the known and the unknowable. What’s more, we are continually moving in and out of this in-between state, holding little to no knowledge of the implications of our actions in the moment. According to John Captuo, by taking an action and making a choice, “we act with a heightened sense of the delimitation of subjectivity, not sure of this ‘we’ or who or what acts within us or what deeper impulses are at work on us. We act with fear and trembling . . . We act because something has to be done.”[8] Captuo suggests that action itself is inherently unstable, which means that to act is to leave stability. The decision to act, to choose one path over another, is a deconstructive experience. Our actions—for or against, yes or no, one or the other, and so on—move us into this flux, a place without parameters or predetermined outcomes. That is, action connects us to something fundamentally important about these transitions of life and history. These transitions happen because there is a willingness to break down what is known in order to move our individual lives and collective history forward. What this entails is unknown, as forward movement doesn’t guarantee individual or social progress, but it is movement nonetheless. And that movement isn’t possible without the breakdown and removal of the prior principles and foundations that define us before the flux. Thus, Caputo proposes that it’s “precisely from the breakdown of standpoints and resting points of all sorts that we begin to act.”[9] He describes this as an “ethics of dissemination,” which is to say an ethics that arises because of metaphysical and other founding principles that we may hold. It’s an ethics of “cold hermeneutics, the hermeneutics without comfort.”[10]

It’s worth staying here for a moment before moving on. Caputo’s ethics of dissemination suggests something significant about transition. There’s an air of mystery that shrouds the decisions and actions we make, both knowingly and unknowingly. To decide and to act is to enter the flux, a space made possible by our actions—both willingly and unwillingly. Doing so disseminates the present, transitioning and transforming what was old into something new. Big or small, such disseminations remove the certainties we carry in the present by remaking them in the future. Consequently, we’re constantly being remade through every decision and act in both life and history. The flux remains part of us from birth until death.

The mystery of the flux provokes us to both wonder and fascination, but also fear. What does it mean to be in transition? Indeed, here might be the most challenging aspect of all. For to live life fully we must also change, it’s impossible to remain static. And yet, it’s the transition toward the unknown that remains misunderstood. Is each stage and point in life just a preparation for the next? Is there any point in life or history that we can remain secure and comfortable? Without a doubt these are vexing questions. The relationship between action, decision, and transition remains an uneasy one—particularly in times such as these. For given the amount of instability in the world, the challenges we face both personally and socially are daunting. We face the challenge of living, as John Dewey describes it, “an aleatory world; [our] existence involves, to put it badly, a gamble. The world is a scene of risk; it is uncertain, unstable, uncannily unstable. Its dangers are irregular, inconstant, not to be counted upon as to their times and seasons. Although persistent, they are sporadic, episodic.”[11] Living within this “scene of risk,” we’re face with the ambiguity of ignorance, of not knowing what lies beyond the horizon of our own actions. Thus, for every action or inaction, decision, and opportunity, we enter the flux—the space of the in-between—with uneasiness and dread. Even still, life within this in-between also offers opportunity. Dewey continues, “Plague, famine, failure of crops, disease, death, defeat in battle, are always just around the corner, and so are abundance, strength, victory, festival and song. Luck is proverbially both good and bad in its distributions. The sacred and the accursed are potentialities of the same situation; and there is no category of things which has not embodied the sacred and accursed: persons, words, places, times, directions in space, stones, winds, animals, stars.” [12]

“As we near the end of this century’s first quarter, there’s something about the contemporary climate that provokes a certain uneasiness and dread of the future.”

The in-between is a space that offers both opportunity and failure. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily hard to grasp. Surely, it’s undoubtedly a truism to suggest that any action may lead to one of multiple possible outcomes, and in hindsight we’re able to see the results of those actions. Quite simply, both life and history are of course the result of a long series of consequences. Still, these transitions carry an enduring fascination worth exploring. For it’s not the outcome of action that is of interest here, but the dynamic relationship that exists between life, history, decision, and action. As suggested earlier, both Fromm and Arendt paint the picture of life and history as action driven, unpredictable, and transitional. A picture that Caputo carries forward as life in the flux—the mystery of transition and the continual horizon of the unknown. Or as Dewey describes it, “Every ‘this’ is transitive, momentarily becoming a ‘that.’ In its movement it is, therefore, conditioning of what is to come; it presents the potentiality of foresight and prediction.”[13] And just like Schrodinger’s cat, in which the cat is both simultaneously dead and alive, so too does this in-between hold the potentiality of both promise and disappointment. Thus, as we move forward, it’s this process of transitions—the study of the in-between and its indeterminate character—that we’ll be looking at in-depth. 

Surely, the need for such a study is great given the particular instability and transitional nature of contemporary life and society, which of course carries an increasing sense of indeterminacy. To state that global society is unstable isn’t all that controversial of a statement—I might be wrong, but I don’t believe so. Now it’s undoubtedly true that every age and time of human history has carried with it some degree of instability. Let’s not give our contemporary situation a uniqueness that’s unwarranted. It’s easy to elevate one’s time in history when we have the advantage of hindsight. Still, as we near the end of this century’s first quarter, there’s something about the contemporary climate that provokes a certain uneasiness and dread of the future. And that saying something given the global calamity that was the twentieth century. Certainly, we’re bombarded daily with dire declarations and predictions about our world. It seems that a day doesn’t go by without some new catastrophe arising either home or abroad. It’s hard to be optimistic in a world that seems perpetually engulfed by violence. Still, it’s been over thirty years since historian John Gaddis coined the term “long peace,” describing how our world hasn’t experienced a major global conflict since the Second World War.[14] A remarkably feat for sure, when we remember that the largest forty-four economies of the world haven’t taken up arms against each other since 1945.[15]

Yet, our collective nervousness remains. Especially when we read major newspaper and magazine editorials that describe both our nation and world as “dangerous.” Of course, it would be hard to argue that these concerns are unfounded. The world’s barometer of uncertainty, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, has us at 2 minutes to midnight.[16] Gauging our proximity to doomsday, the Bulletin has moved the doomsday clock forward each year since 1991 (with the exception of 2010 and 2016) from 17 minutes to today’s current position.[17] A remarkable change given that we arguably remain in the “long peace.” And given the current potential disasters we face—climate change, nuclear war, the resurgence of fascism and nationalism, the disintegration of the European Union, and economic volatility (to name a few)—it would be hard to not have a pessimistic view of the future. Noam Chomsky best encapsulates this pessimism, stating, “It is hard to find words to capture the fact that humans are facing the most important question in their history—whether organized human life will survive in anything like the form we know—and are answering it by accelerating the race to disaster.”[18]   

Most assuredly, we face real existential threats at this point in history, and yet the cause of our anxiety perhaps has less to do with global catastrophes and more to do with the transitional moment in time we find ourselves. Again, every age has had to face threats that seemingly felt as if the world were on the brink of the apocalyptic. Yet, this transitional moment, being a social unease stemming from the fear of the unknown, marks us in a way we seemingly can’t identify. Perhaps it’s a collective loss of confidence brought about by the catastrophes of two world wars, a cold war, a war on terror, and our subsequent failures to truly remake the world. Thus, what marks our age isn’t just the fear of the unknown but the collective loss of confidence that such an unknown might hold any promise or progress. The tragedy of modernity is that it failed to leave us with any hope in any future. Modernity ends its reign impotent and disjointed, going out with a whimper rather than a bang.

[To be continued in Part II]


[1] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Open Road Media, 2013), 11, Kindle.

[2] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 11-12.

[3] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 30.

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 184, Kindle.

[5] Arendt, The Human Condition, 185.

[6] Arendt, The Human Condition, 232.

[7] Arendt writes, “Action reveals itself fully only to the storyteller, that is, to the backward glance of the historian, who indeed always knows better what it was all about than the participants. All accounts told by the actors themselves, though they may in rare cases give an entirely trustworthy statement of intentions, aims, and motives, become mere useful source material in the historian’s hands and can never match his story in significance and truthfulness. What the storyteller narrates must necessarily be hidden from the actor himself [sic], at least as long as he is in the act or caught in its consequences, because to him the meaningfulness of his act is not in the story that follows. Even though stories are the inevitable results of action, it is not the actor but the storyteller who perceives and ‘makes’ the story.” Arendt, The Human Condition, 192.

[8] John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 239-40.

[9] Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, 238.

[10] Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, 239.

[11] John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958), 71.

[12] Dewey, Experience and Nature, 71-72

[13] The quote continues, “The union of past and future with the present manifest in every awareness of meanings is a mystery only when consciousness is gratuitously divided from nature, and when nature is denied temporal and historic quality. When consciousness is connected with nature, the mystery becomes a luminous revelation of the operative interpenetration in nature of the efficient and the fulfilling.” Dewey, Experience and Nature, 427.

[14] See John Lewis Gaddis, “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System,” International Security 10, no. 4 (1986): 99-142.

[15] See Neil Halloran, “The Fallen of World War II,” YouTube Video, 18:30, October 26, 2016, https://youtu.be/DwKPFT-RioU.

[16] Mecklin, John, ed., “It is 2 Minutes to Midnight: 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Science and Security Board, January 25, 2018, https://thebulletin.org/sites/default /files/2018%20Doomsday%20Clock%20Statement.pdf.

[17] “Timeline,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, accessed December 6, 2018, https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/past-announcements/.

[18] Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World (New York: Picador, 2016), 261.

Featured Photo by Simon Watkinson on Unsplash

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