Stop for a second and listen to what people are saying — or at least suggesting — in the conversations we’re all having every day. I’m worried. I’m afraid. I’m overwhelmed. I’m unsure.
In a sense everyone is expressing some version of the same thing.
Am I going to be OK?
And it’s no wonder.
COVID-19 has brought a crush of change to every household in America. Close to 150,000 of us have lost loved ones; 40 million of us have lost jobs; tens of millions more are rethinking what careers we want to have, where we want to live, how we care for our children, how we protect our aging parents. The way we cope with such changes is called a “life transition” and learning to master these challenging periods just may be the most essential life skill each of us needs right now.
I spent the last five years performing the biggest study of life transitions in half a century. Spurred by a string of personal crises — a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, a near bankruptcy, a string of suicide attempts by my father, who was suffering from Parkinson’s — I crisscrossed the country, collecting the life stories of hundreds of Americans in all 50 states who’d been through wrenching life changes. These included people who lost limbs, lost homes, changed careers, changed religions, got sober, got out of bad marriages.
A small sample includes:
- A Wall Street bond trader turned romance novelist.
- A two-time cancer survivor who climbed Mount Everest.
- A CIA analyst who quit to train rescue dogs.
- A magazine writer turned mortician.
- A theoretical physicist who stepped down from a tenured professorship to devote himself to his YouTube band called Ninja Sex Party.
- Three people who went to prison.
- Four people who died and came back to life.
- Five people who saved their marriages by getting sober.
- Six people who survived natural disasters.
With a team of 12, I then spent a year combing through these conversations teasing out patterns and takeaways that can help all of us survive and thrive in times of instability.
What I learned is that the variety of changes we experience in our lives is increasing and the pace at which we experience them is quickening. Three to five times in our lives those changes rise to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events “lifequakes,” because they’re higher on the Richter Scale of consequences, the damage they cause can be devastating, and their aftershocks can last for years.
The good news: Lifequakes lead to life transitions. If lifequakes make us feel stuck; a transition is how we get stuck. And there are tools to make that easier. I believe the most exciting thing I’ve identified is the first new model for how to navigate life transitions in 50 years, which includes a clear, concrete roadmap for transforming times of chaos and upheaval into periods of creativity and growth.
The most challenging step may be the first. Lifequakes can be voluntary or involuntary, but the transitions that grow out of them must be voluntary. You must choose to enter this state of change. Once you do, there are surprising patterns that can increase the odds that you’ll make the most of these periods.
One revelation is that while transitions might seem disorganized and discombobulated, they actually have a remarkably consistent shape. Transitions involve three distinct phases. I call them “the long goodbye,” “the messy middle” and “the new beginning.” Unlike what scholars claimed a century ago, these steps don’t happen in a straight, predictable line. One of the clearest conclusions from my conversations is that the old model of life transitions is wrong. Worse, it is dangerous for people who believe they are expected to go through a set of emotions in a prearranged order.
Just as life is nonlinear, transitions themselves are nonlinear.
As a rule, I found that each person gravitates to the phase they’re naturally adept at and gets stuck in the one they’re weakest at. While some people hate saying goodbye (39% in my study), others excel at it. Nina Collins, a onetime literary agent who lost her mother when she was 19, went on to have multiple careers and multiple marriages. “I’m very decisive at saying goodbye,” she said. “My therapist once said I under-attach to things. I think it’s because my mother died young.”
Many bog down in the messy middle (47% in my study), but some thrive. Rosemary Daniell, a scarlet-haired poet from Atlanta, was the daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother who died by suicide. Married at 16, Rosemary divorced her first two husbands but was divorced by her third, a playwright from New York. She was so devastated she responded by dating only manly men — cops, cowboys, teamsters — working on an oil rig, and writing a steamy kiss-and-tell.
When I asked Rosemary about that messy period when she was searching for Mr. Wrong (she eventually married the winner, an army paratrooper, and they’ve been together for three decades), she looked at me with bemused scorn. “I loved that period! I call it a vacation from life. I see it as a period of fun, new experiences, creativity, and meeting all kinds of people I had never met before.”
Rosemary’s story hints at a larger truth. If you understand and deploy the skills of navigating a life transition — accepting your emotions, using rituals to say goodbye to your own self, shedding certain habits, experimenting with creative outlets, unveiling your new self — they can be remarkably freeing, even renewing.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned in more than a thousand hours of interviews is that a life transition is a meaning-making exercise. And it’s one that works. A transition is the slow, effortful process of turning the cacophony of a lifequake into the melody of everyday life.
And transitions are essential to being alive. As long as we have to spend half our lives in these unsettled states, we should stop viewing them as periods we have to grit and grind our way through. We should see them instead for what they are: healing periods that take the wounded parts of lives and begin to repair them.
William James said it best a century ago and we should heed his wisdom: “Life is in the transitions.” Transitions are not going away; they key to benefiting from them is not turn away. Don’t shield your eyes with the scary parts start; that’s when the heroes are made.
Bruce Feiler is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including The Secrets of Happy Families and Council of Dads, which inspired the NBC series. His latest book, Life Is In the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, from which this piece is adapted, has just been published. For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com.