• Guest Contributor

Shipwreck and Trapezes

I annually remind seniors that loss is part of change.  I tell them that their commencement probably feels like flying through the air in a trapeze act, letting go of one bar while flying through the air until the next bar arrives and they grab it.  I have never been on a trapeze, but I know that life now feels like flying through the air, waiting for that next bar to arrive before we stop moving, before we fall.  So much trust is necessary, so much courage, and patience too in the face of fear and loss.


Another description of change and loss is that of shipwreck, a term coined by theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (1892-1971).  Shipwreck refers to a collapsed sense of self, the world, God, disorientation, disequilibrium.  Often caused by change, shipwreck involves a shattering of assumptions and chaos. In Neibuhrian terms, shipwreck is a normal part of growth.  When at sea, you have to let go of one wrecked board to grab the raft.


Clearly, these weeks feel like shipwreck.  I sometimes get up in the morning wrecked already, after fitful sleep, too many questions and not enough perspective, while in some ways I am also fine.  There are so many boards floating in the ocean of wreck that it is hard to know what to hold firmly and for how long.  Much of what we thought secure and trustworthy has been shattered, transformed.


There is loss in transformation, in change, in leaving behind a time we thought was “normal,” especially when we do not know what is before us.  We are in this disorientation together and land has not yet appeared. Loss is all around us, perhaps part of our change, and perhaps the cause of our transformation.


Grief feels like shipwreck too. There is so much to grieve right now—the dead and suffering, the loss of structures that hold us together, the hugs we cannot share, and other human separations.  


It might be enough to admit that we are grieving and at sea, that our losses are real, and that loss hurts and is disorienting. There is no real hurry to realize the next stop, because it will come to us, hurtling through the air, or in the form of a ship or a raft.  We grasp what we can and hold on. 


We are all just holding on.  Some days we are thriving on a log at sea, other days are filled with anxiety, dread, fear, exhaustion, and too much water in every direction.  Maybe some of us can see land but everything is uncertain. We are vulnerable and uncertain.  Admitting it, speaking of it, helps more than pretending we are not.  There is strength in telling the truth, in being where we are; there is a blessed and fragile strength in being honest. In the uncertainty of grief, I am sure of two things, and to these I hold and from them I take heart:  We are deeply loved by God, by the eternal presence, by the great Eye and heart of the universe, the creator.  And, we are—therefore--not alone on the water, or flying through the air, or awaiting what is next.



Jan Fuller has been the University Chaplain at Elon since 2011. She is an Episcopal priest and deeply invested in helping students to find their own spiritual paths while interacting with others in differing paths with appreciation and respect.Raised in Beirut Lebanon for the first half of her life, Jan is the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries to the Arab peoples of the Middle East. Jan’s education includes a Doctor of Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary,a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, and a B.A. in English and French from Hollins University. Jan describes herself as a “war-zone survivor,” who retains a sense of humor and love of gentleness. She loves Arab art and food, and all kinds of music. She intends to find the gift in every day and to live her life as a way of giving thanks.

Contact: jfuller3@elon.edu

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