Navigating transitions, chaos, and change- finding your story while keeping your sanity
Updated: May 26
Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age
Bruce Feiler 2020
Transitions are the most vulnerable times of our lives. When we are going through a transition, we are shedding many of the beliefs and resources that served us in the past and taking on new routines and ideas that may or may not work out in the future. There's an inevitable learning curve whenever trying new things, and the mistakes that come with transitions can be trying and costly.
This book, by author Bruce Feiler, looks deeply into transition periods and how they can effect us. The linear life is dead, according to Feiler, and major disruptions can happen at any time. He believes that each of us experiences 3-5 major disruptions, (which he calls lifequakes) in our lifetimes, and 30-40 significant disruptions in our lives that potentially can send us off into entirely new directions.
What are the most common sources of these disruptions? These are the events that you would think- deaths of family members, serious illnesses, new jobs or careers, marriages, divorces, having children, or major natural disasters. Some disruptions are pleasant ones and some are dangerously unpleasant, and unless we approach such life changes with the right attitude, they have the potential to overwhelm us and throw us completely off course.
Feiler undertook something he called the life story project, in which he interviewed in depth some 225 people from around the United States and asked them about their high and low points, turning points, and the transitions that changed them the most. He interweaves the stories of these people throughout the book, and it makes for an interesting way to illustrate his points on transitions.
The book is very thorough, detailing some 52 different disruptors that fall into five general categories- love, work, health, identity, or beliefs. He claims that most of them can happen at any age, and can be bunched together or spread out. There is no such thing as "middle age crises" according to this author, and life stories don't usually play out in any kind of predictable script.
It's easy in times of change and transition to want to cling to the past, but this is not healthy nor possible long-term. Change is inevitable, and the key to stronger mental fitness during time of change is to adapt and grow. People have to move from resistance to acceptance (in our own way) and take agency over the transition instead of passively waiting for it to happen to us.
Transitions come in three stages according to this book- the long goodbye, the messy middle, and the new beginning. It's possible to go through all three stages at once. The long goodbye can be the most painful, and often it's helpful to get help from others during this vulnerable time. During the long goodbye we realize that something is off and not working, and look for ways to fix it. When we realize that minor fixes won't work anymore, and major changes must be made (or when the major changes force themselves upon us), then we must confront the grief and pain that comes from saying goodbye to a part of our lives.
The messy middle is just that- messy. It's why people don't want to go back to school, go back into the dating scene, re-evaluate their religious or political beliefs, or move out of their cluttered houses. Change can bring chaos, and the fear of this can keep people stuck in bad situations for years. There's too many decisions, too many things that can go wrong, and an unknown amount of risk. It's almost easier to retreat to what we already know, but this stage is essential for growth.
To deal with the uncertainties of the messy middle, Feiler has several rules that he found from his interviews that helped others.
- The Matisse Rule- Experiment with new ways of doing things when the old ways don't work. (Matisse used scissors to create great works of art when he was confined for years to a wheelchair and couldn't paint)
- The Baldwin Rule- Write about your experiences, gain control of the narrative, and journal yourself into a new life like James Baldwin did.
- The Tharp Rule- Use your old stuff and your past as a springboard to new inspirations.
- The Feldenkrais Rule- Move your body to stimulate new pathways in your brain like the famous Feldenkrais method did for thousands of people.
If you persist, you get to experience the final stage- the new beginning, which is the most powerful and hopeful of the three stages of transitions. Feiler recommends sharing your stories with others, and noticing the "first normal moments" of the new life you are in. You know you've made the transition once you feel like you have some normalcy back in your life (however transient), and are able to return to a state of flow.
This book is very big on stories and storytelling. It encourages us to think about our transitions as journeys where we are in charge and not victims. It prods us to look at the big changes in our lives and look for the learning experiences and constructive things that came out of it. As long as we're still learning, our lives are in forward, positive motion, which is how we find meaning.
Stories are what give our lives meaning. The author asked his subjects to tell him what "shape" their lives were. This curious question brought out three different ways that people assigned meaning to their lives.
First- there is agency, in which the shapes all had a direction like an arrow or a mountain. These people saw themselves as the heroes of their story and prided themselves in taking actions that made things happen.
Second, there is belonging, in which the shapes looked more like circles and spirals. These people found meaning in the relationships that they maintained and the love that they found. Parenthood and romantic relationships played a huge part in the meaning that these people took from life.
And third, there is cause, where shapes with meaning like stars predominated. People who chose cause as their prime source of meaning had an ambitious goal that they wanted to reach for the benefit of many.
Feiler uses his interviews to show how different types of meaning were created by the people in his study, and he also relates that our search for meaning can change during a lifetime. People switch back and forth between agency, belonging, and cause, especially if their lives become out of balance. Being devoted to a cause is great unless it means your personal life suffers, and getting along with people is only good if you're able to have a sense of agency and control of your own life. We are always looking at and balancing these three sources of meaning, especially after times of re-adjustment and change that come from transitions.
The book closes with five truths about transitions that I thought were a good summary and helpful takeaway-
1- Transitions are becoming more plentiful as our world becomes less predictable.
2- Life is more and more a non-linear experience, and to expect certain things to happen in predictable sequences is not realistic.
3- Transitions can take longer than you think they will. (Sometimes as long as 5 years!) As you get into them, more and more things become clear that also need to change.
4- Transitions are autobiographical occasions. Don't be afraid to write about them.
5- Transitions are essential to life. (Otherwise we'd all be stuck in elementary school forever)
If you want to learn more about the Life Story Project, go to the author's website- Brucefeiler.com, where you can fill out an interview just like the author gave to others, or you can start your own project with family members to gather their life stories. During the interviews they ask you to describe a high point, a low point, and a turning point in your life. Just taking a look at those three questions will give you a unique perspective on your life so far and some new ideas for how to do better with the next transitions.
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