We cross thresholds alone, together
Image © a.m. bhatt
My father turns and walks into the Palam Airport in New Delhi. Security protocols keep us from entering the terminal and spending the final hours with him. The dark-tinted door swings closed behind him, and he is gone. To “America”. To some place that is, to my 3 year-old mind, an impenetrable mystery, wholly unknowable. My mother, sister, and I are standing silently on the grey pavement on this side of that mystery, holding each other’s hands.
“The only constant is change”. You’ve no doubt seen that phrase on a mug or in a Facebook post or on an HR poster. It’s a nice bit of sugar that helps the medicine go down. But at the core of that saying is - among other truths - a truth about Life that most of us recoil from: the only constant is death. The lone unavoidable certainty of our lives is that, in one manner or another, we will die. For some of us, death will come gently - a slow peaceful passage from all of the knowing we’ve accumulated on this side of that final threshold, and into whatever is, or isn’t, on the other. For others, our end will be abrupt - a hasty and chaotic stumbling through that last portal.
But no matter how our lives end, no matter the context or conditions, in those final moments, our inclination will be to reach out our hand. No matter who is with us there in the back of an ambulance, or the bed of a frantic ICU, or the warm comfort of home, our inclination in those last moments will be to reach our hand out to the person next to us and ask for them to hold it. Even if that person is a complete stranger, someone who has shown up in our lives only for those final few minutes, our inclination will be to reach for them.
My father is a paradox. While very unassuming and unambitious by the standards of American society, he craved change. Growing up in a traditional Indian family in the 1950’s and 60’s, there were clear expectations about who he should be and how he should live - and he adhered to these expectations. And yet, from his teenage years on, he longed to cross a certain threshold, to leave a place and a society that knew who he was and leap into a place where nothing was known other than the possibility of possibility.
If you can truly internalize this truth—not intellectualize it, create an Instagram meme about it, or pull “inspiration” from it—but allow yourself to feel the weight of it in your body, you will have a sense of something absolutely fundamental about human life: almost every moment, every interaction, can be one of two things: a reaching out of your hand, or an acknowledging of a hand being held out to you and choosing to taking it. Because most moments of our, and others’, lives are thresholds of one sort or another. We’ve never been in this moment before, with these people, under these circumstances – we’ve never been the person we may need to be on the other side of this moment. If we are paying attention every moment is a potential threshold, a death of who we are and an invitation into the glorious mystery and uncertainty of birthing who we might be.
Some of these thresholds are major and obvious: starting or ending a marriage, graduating from college, a major transition or change in the workplace. But what, for example, is a manager or executive actually saying when they address their employees about a major change, an organizational threshold event? What I hear is something like: From where we are now, I don’t know what exactly is going to happen, I don’t know with certainty what’s next, and I am both excited about the possibility…and scared by the uncertainty. The ideas I’m sharing here are my best guess as to what we should do. And this email, this town hall meeting, this communication is me reaching my hand out to the organization and hoping that they will take it.
In my work with executives, one of the personal thresholds they needed to cross in the work of embodying their unique expression of Leadership was cultivating the clarity and humility to understand, and fully own, that this is what they were actually saying to their organization when they spoke of Change. Invariably, my job in that context - in the process of their dying to their ideas about leadership and being born into their Leadership - was, at its core, to hold their hand.
Creative work is no different. A truly authentic book or film or song is grounded in a human being’s personal experience in crossing, or at least examining, some threshold experience in life - and the work they produce is a hand held out to the world, hoping to be grasped. Either this or the book or film or song is the taking of a hand that the creator sees being held out by a particular group of human beings who are themselves at some threshold.
Everything else, in business or art, is commodity. Transaction. Wholly blind to the endlessly transitional nature of human life. To the ever-presence of death, and the associated possibility of birth. To the inherent threshold nature of every moment.
America gave him as much hardship and adversity as a human being can handle. And, it gave him a very long string of thresholds - opportunities to die to one way of life that wasn’t working and be reborn to a new possibility. As difficult as each of those passages may have been and as much emotional toll as they may have taken, he and my mother were ultimately always there to hold each other’s hands through the transitions.
How we develop the capacity to authentically and courageously reach out our hands, both to hold and be held, is a longer conversation – and one that doesn’t benefit from the linear constraints of written language. But what is not to be done is to retreat into abstraction. There is no model or process or tool that will provide us with what is needed to reach out our hands.
The work is in the practice.
There is no drawing board, no classroom, no case study. There is only the practice of seeing, and willing to be accountable for, the fact that in this moment, I am either the one standing at a threshold or the person capable of taking the hand of the one standing at a threshold. These thresholds can be minor or massive, but they’re all around us. We are surrounded by people in transition – including ourselves – searching for the courage to loosen their grip on what they know, and the grace to surrender to what could be. An endless string of micro deaths and rebirths.
That’s the game around thresholds: understanding that to be human is to encounter countless thresholds, one after another. And that for every one, if we’re paying attention, the central inclination for human beings is to reach out. And, as with the ultimate threshold event of physical death, what human beings need is for someone to be there to hold their hand, right up until that very last moment when they cross the threshold and enter, alone, the mystery of who they’ll be on the other side of it.
My father’s body rolls into the cremation chamber. COVID-19 protocols had kept us from entering the ICU and spending the final days with him. The darkly painted metal door slides closed behind him, and he is gone. To…where? To some place that is, to my 50 year-old mind, an impenetrable mystery, wholly unknowable. My mother, sister, and I are standing silently on the gray marble floor on this side of that mystery, holding each other’s hands.