I asked my friend, “How was your weekend?” Under usual circumstances, that is a simple question to ask. However, depending on the timing and context, the answer can be quite complex. She is in the middle of major life change—a we-will-never-be-the-same kind of life change. Her answer to my question was, “Surreal.” In a single word she captured an experience that defies description. There are moments in life that are so monumental that they have the power to knock us off balance—even redefine us.
The poet Guilliame Apollinaire was the first to use the term “surreal” to suggest the genuine experience that exists beneath our conscious reality. In the world of artistic expression, Surrealism was a 20th-century avant-garde movement that used irrational juxtaposition of images to express the unconscious mind. Surrealistic paintings have a dreamlike quality. Artists like Salvador Dali, Michael Cheval, and Joan Miro wanted to challenge rationality by recording the uncensored thoughts and images that entered their minds. No matter the style, the consistent goal was to bring our deepest thoughts to the surface. Cheval boldly called Surrealism the genre of absurdity, saying, “Absurdism is an attempt to understand our life the way it truly is.”
I can see his point. In our lifetimes we have all had experiences that evoked a sense of other-worldliness, where we catch ourselves thinking about the very moment we are experiencing while it is still happening. We find ourselves asking, “Is this real? Is this truly happening?” Some of those surreal experiences are tragic moments of loss, like standing at the bedside of a loved one slipping into eternity, or learning of a life-threatening accident that will permanently detour a loved one’s future.
One personal monumental moment for me happened on an April Fool’s Day. The leader of the organization I served used a routine meeting for the two of us as an opportunity to announce that my contract would not be renewed. Reason? I was “no longer a fit” for the after more than a decade of service with an unblemished record. In the moment, it felt like I was watching the scene from somewhere else, observing the dichotomy between my outer calm and my inside chaos. Surely this was an April Fool’s prank! There was the sensation that if I pinched myself hard enough, I’ll wake up and realize I had just been dreaming.
However, hang-in-the-balance moments can also be the sweet ones that linger in our emotional memory because we are asking impossible questions like, “Can I make this last a little longer?” and “Could time stand still long enough to let me really savor this day?” Instead of wanting them to be erased from reality, we recognize the need to mark time, to take mental snapshots, and to capture the sensations to replay again and again. I find I can easily reboot experiences like the magical sunset on the day we celebrated my Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary, the delightful first night in our new home before there was even a stick of furniture in place, and my favorite moments of my daughter’s wedding day.
Our kids are the cause of many of the most magical moments. The day our babies were born, the first day of kindergarten (complete with snapshots on the front steps), and dropping them off for their inaugural week at camp all pop into our heads with a mere mention. But it is also altogether too easy for our excitement and fear to be simmering in the same pot when our kids are involved. I remember when my first was graduating from high school. We took a cross country trip to my favorite places in the city and on the Olympic Peninsula. I had lived in Seattle after college. I was excited about building family memories in familiar places. However, I also had to fight off the sinking feeling that we would never experience another family vacation all together again. All I saw was an end. Overwhelmed by the fear of loss, I actually lost out on some great opportunities for those precious mental snapshots. In the thick of it, I forgot that seemingly surreal moments can also be a part of good transitions.
Now it is August and I’m seeing another surreal moment coming. Our students will be starting college, some for the first time. Some will have their first apartment. Some of you will be putting a precious one on a plane for a semester abroad. The transition will be a change of such significance that both we and our students will find ourselves redefined. The monumental moments will dredge up our deepest thoughts. Our unconscious responses may be exposed. I imagine it will feel irrational. Nevertheless, it will be genuine.
I want to encourage you to focus on the excitement and not the fear. Remember that changes can also be magical moments for our families. Remind yourselves that this moment represents a mission accomplished. A step toward the future. A fresh start. It can be a mountaintop experience. If it helps, remind yourself that you have survived the first day of school for more than a decade already!
Scripture is full of guidance on navigating transitions. I especially like Joshua 4 when God instructs the priests how to celebrate transition. After crossing the Jordan on dry ground, the priests were to mark the milestone experience with a monument. They stacked stones at the site a reminder of God’s miraculous intervention to allow them to cross over into a new life. I don’t expect Lake Johanna to roll back to reveal dry ground for this year’s Orientation activities, but we can still be deliberate in acknowledging the monumental moments as we start the school year. This is not a dream! As you experience the next step in transition (or return) to college, mark the time with mental snapshots. Savor the moment. This experience is worth remembering.
We are partnering with you. The staff and faculty at Northwestern are praying blessing over this journey for our students AND their families. May you see His provision and protection in travel mercies, new connections on campus, your student’s growth in self-advocacy, and through the faculty and staff who truly care about your student’s experience. Blessings on you and yours as you prepare to launch into a new semester at UNW!