A point of no return is a situation in which our only possible course of action is to move ahead into an unknown and unfamiliar realm of experience. It is a transformative event characterized by the impossibility of returning to the life we once knew. Decisive moments in life conjure mercurial periods of vulnerability. They haunt us with a desire to return the familiar ways we have been forced to abandon. Simultaneously, we become immobilized by uncertainty and the fear of moving into the mystery ahead. A point of no return transforms the feeling of being alive.
Past the point of no return
The final threshold
The bridge is crossed, so stand and watch it burn
We’ve passed the point of no return
– The Point of No Return from The Phantom of the Opera
In the song “The Point of No Return” from The Phantom of the Opera, the metaphor of a burning bridge is used to describe the completion of a transition between two different phases of life. Fire symbolizes an irrevocable change in our course of life. And as we turn back, we see a familiar way of life that is no longer possible.
My interest in this article is to briefly explore the experience of the bridge, that unsettled and turbulent space that permanently alters our course of life. What happens to us on the bridge? How long does it take to cross it? And what capabilities and capacities are required to help us find our way to the other side?
Standing on a Burning Bridge
We all experience liminal states in life that conjure fear, ambiguity, and uncertainty. We possess an innate desire for constancy; that is, our hope is to move through life with a minimal amount of turbulence and disruption. However, the desire for constancy is unrealistic and a potential source of self-harm.
Our lives take place inside a total surround that cannot be fully understood or revealed. We expend great effort to control our circumstances in life, to deny change, to protect our expectations, and to pursue a “normal” life. However, normal is not always predictable, consistent, or kind.
A point of no return advises us that life can become wild and feral. We all must try to find a way to move through unexpected circumstances, difficult situations, and painful events. Sometimes these liminal encounters hold us captive inside a haunting period of inertia.
The metaphor of the burning bridge symbolizes the impossibility of going back or retreating to the life we once had. However, a bridge links one point to another point. When we become trapped inside a liminal state, we cannot find a way to get off the bridge. There is no clearly defined path to follow. We can trace the path that brought us here, but there is no clear view of the other side.
A point of no return means that the bridge is engulfed in flames while we are still standing on it.
When we step onto the bridge of a major threshold in life, we inevitably find ourselves free falling into the feral realm of life and the wilderness of our vulnerability.
Signs and Symptoms of a Point of No Return
The experience of being held captive inside point of no return is a journey into the shadows of the human condition. Our sense of identity becomes confused. Our sense of purpose in life becomes unstable. And our sense of motivation is mired within an oppressive inertia. A partial list of signs and symptoms would include:
- A disruptive event changes our course of life
- There is no way to turn back
- We cannot see what lies ahead
- We are not sure what we should do
- We feel threatened by forces that are out of our control
- Rumination, distraction, and hyper-awareness plague the mind
- Our hopes and dreams are wounded
- We may take refuge in addictions that cause self-harm
- We recognize that the risk of not finding a way out is real
- Our purpose in life becomes confused and fragile
- We do not know how long it will take to find a way out
- We do not know if we can find a way out
- We feel a sense of existential despair and a loss of meaning
- A shocking sense of vulnerability permeates our sensibilities.
Decisive Moments in Life
The midlife passage is a liminal state that bridges the first half of life to the second half. For some of us, midlife is a period of deep change and transformation; for others, it may pass by unnoticed. It is a threshold that requires us to properly abandon our claim on youth and begin a journey toward a different horizon.
The emergence of an age-related disease is a point of no return characterized by a chronic physical ailment that constricts the ways we can participate and interact with the world. An age-related disease will often impose a level of functional decline that agitates the mind and disturbs the spirit. A chronic condition means that we cannot return to our previous state of health, and our task is to find a way to adapt to new circumstances.
Climate change may already be beyond the point of no return. The impact of human population growth impairs the earth’s carrying capacity. Sometimes we are not able to undo the damage we have caused. The consequences of these interconnected problems constitute a frightening mystery that will eventually surround us.
Finally, death is a profound, haunting, and terrifying point of no return. The death of a parent can immerse our sensibilities inside a tempest of grief that conjures a profound life change. As we move through the second half of life, we witness the death of our cohorts and begin to feel the raw nature of our mortality with greater clarity. And, of course, we must face the final threshold of our own death.
Creativity is Transformative
A point of no return invites the question, “What is this experience asking of me?”
This question helps to prevent our retreat into inaction. It helps us to recognize that we must undertake the difficult work of liberating ourselves from an aspect of the past that has already been lost. And it encourages us to turn directly into the mystery of what lies ahead.
Avoidance only serves to inflame our anxiety. Resignation forces us to inhabit a life that has become too confining. Addiction induces a toxic distraction leading to self-harm. Denial turns life into an exhausting charade. Ignorance imprisons us inside an illusion of our own making.
It is obvious to say that painful experiences are inevitable. What is less obvious is how best to move through them, especially when we feel as though we have become completely mired in a state of inertia.
A point of no return does not offer a timeline. It can take weeks or months to find our way to the other side. Some forms of liminality, such as a dark night of the soul, can confine us in a state of internal exile for years.
We live in an era of immediate gratification; that is, our expectations are neurotic. When we feel pain, we seek immediate relief. From a physical perspective this is sensible, but from a psychological or spiritual perspective, the avoidance of pain can become a source of self-harm. Inner pain demands our attention and participation, not our retreat.
A point of no return conjures rogue thoughts, sudden intuition, the resonance of felt-meaning, unusual forms of perception, uncomfortable feelings, physiological stress, haunting forms of anxiety, psychological wounds, disarming dreams, and spiritual aridity.
An important way to transform inner struggle and hardship is to approach it as a raw material for creative expression.
A core discipline of creativity is to foster the capacity to tolerate ambiguity, develop patience in the midst of uncertainty, and self-compassion in the midst of confusion. An important task in the then midst of liminality is to undertake the difficult work of enduring the wounding inflicted within.
Finally, I believe that genuine creativity is our strongest ally in confronting difficult experience in life. Authentic artistry is innately therapeutic. Creativity is a source of genuine counsel. To remain creative in the midst of internal disruption and instability fosters transformative potential. As we improvise with our ruminations and rogue emotional states, we generate the opportunity to recognize what our inner pain is trying to teach us.
A point of no return is an apprenticeship in vulnerability. Sometimes, we will become wounded. An essential task is to pursue the question, “What is this experience asking of me?”
We are required to abandon something that provided familiarity and comfort, while simultaneously compelled toward the impenetrable mystery of what lies ahead. The experience of pain and suffering is a necessity. We must undertake the work of making ourselves large enough to endure the turbulence that destabilizes our inner life.
In the end, we will find ourselves alone in a difficult transition. There is no path to follow. No program to adopt. And it is here, amid our abandonment, that creativity becomes the essence survival.