Life disruptions happen to us all. An unexpected illness. The failure of a business. An affair begun or discovered.
Not so long ago, these seismic shifts were all chalked up to a “midlife crisis”: they happened at a certain age (between 40 and 45 and a half, said one very specific academic), were about a certain kind of discontent, and the cliche experience often ended in a brief affair or a red sports car in the garage, or both, before life once again resumed its predictable linear amble through the stages of life.
Journalist and lifelong storyteller Bruce Feiler was, in fact, 43 when his life first turned upside down: He was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, and endured two years of treatment and surgeries and preparations for possibly leaving his twin daughters and wife behind. Then he nearly went bankrupt, as his family’s real estate business contracted in the Great Recession. And then life went upside-down again, when his father became morbidly depressed after the onset of Parkinson’s and tried to kill himself six times in 12 weeks.
None of those events was a midlife crisis, argues Feiler in his bestselling new book, “Life is in the Transitions.” They were a window into how the arc of life and what we can expect from it have changed completely, he says. We tend to think of the challenges in life as breaks in the norm; Feiler argues that the breaks are the norm and that transitions are even harder because of our “delusion of predictability.”
To better understand our new nonlinear lives, he interviewed 225 people across the country who have weathered tremendous life transitions: A Christian woman who broke off her engagement to a man and became a lesbian, only to have her wife realize that he wanted to be a man, and finding her way to stay with him; a mom who endured having two children be treated for cancer for 8 long years, with one of them succumbing; a man who left his stable job as a physics professor to pursue YouTube comedy-rock band fame. And even though the stories were all wildly different, how people made their way through these storms had remarkable similarities.
He went out in search of stories — and he came back certain that the stories we learn to tell ourselves about our lives are in fact the very tool we use to make it through our own “lifequakes.”
Q: Okay, Bruce. So the midlife crisis is dead, but long live the life crisis, which your research showed can come at any time. Tell us more.
BF: As I was listening to people day after day tell me their stories, a lot of patterns emerged. Life is moving faster. Change is happening quicker. The linear life — where you progress through life stages in a predictable fashion; birth, school, maybe college, marriage, kids, career stability, retirement — is dead. It’s been replaced by what I call the nonlinear life, which has many more transitions. My data show we go through three dozen disruptions in our lives, one roughly every 12 to 18 months. One in ten of these becomes a massive change, which I call a lifequake.
It’s important that the term I came up with, lifequake, is value-neutral. Most of the writing about changes labels these moments “crisis” or “catastrophes.” But 47 percent of transitions — almost half! — are ones we initiate. They’re voluntary. Yes, your spouse may cheat on you, but guess what? You may cheat on your spouse. Or you may change your religion. Or you may walk away from a set career in order to start something new. But even these voluntary lifequakes can make us feel isolated and confused. And while that certainty can be overwhelming, it’s actually our body’s way of helping us find a new way to live.
Q: You made the inevitability of life crisis feel safer in some way, which is, indeed, a relief.
BF: The reason this book is called “Life is in the Transitions” — besides being this William James phrase — is that it actually shows that even in these difficult times, there is an opportunity for growth and renewal. It’s not all bad. Yes, there are difficult phases and difficult parts of it that are unavoidably painful. But what goes along with that transition is an opportunity for remaking your own self.
Q: And you write that doubling up on transitions can lead to our very identity “coming down with the flu.” Which was painfully prescient phrasing, given that the pandemic had taken hold just a few months before your book was published.
BF: Well, yes. And for the first time in a century, the entire planet is in a collective, involuntary lifequake together, something all of us are going through together, that we did not initiate.
I think this sheds a tremendous amount of light on the fundamental fallacy of the midlife crisis, because if you’re between 39 and 44 and a half during the pandemic, you’re having a midlife crisis. But if you’re between 27 and 32, you’re also having a crisis. And if you’re between 67 and 72, or like my children, teenagers, you’re also having a crisis.
And so now, if you’re living in a pandemic, your regular life disruptors might actually now lead to a pileup. So our immune system for dealing with disruption gets weakened, and therefore something that would be just a disruptor takes over and becomes a lifequake. You know, you lose your job, and now your mother-in-law needs cataract surgery. Or just when you publish a book, your parents come down with the terminal illnesses.
Q: Which is my story, as I simply had to tell you immediately — just like everyone does.
BF: Oh, yes, I was so moved to hear your story. But I’ve never been involved in a project such as this one, that whenever I start talking about the stories I heard and the lessons I learned, everyone lights up, and opens up. We all want to share our story. And we secretly all want to know how everyone else handles the kinds of moments we get stuck in. And that’s why my book — a compilation of so many of these stories — is a roadmap of sorts. I show you how everyone else made it through, so you can pick the tricks that would work best for you.
Q: Let’s say we’re not in the middle of a huge multilayered life transition, but we feel stuck — underemployed, under-inspired, overlooked — which are traits that can tend to land in people’s laps as they are in their fifties and sixties, and start to feel like the world’s less interested in them. Are there ways to apply these lessons if you’re just mired?
BF: Number one: the lifequake can be voluntary or involuntary, but the life transition must be voluntary. So what I heard you just say, “I’m mired. I’m stuck. I’m back on my heels. I find myself in a situation where I don’t know what to do.” To me, when you move from a lifequake to a life transition is when you go from your heels to your toes. You lean forward and you say, okay, now I’m going to attempt to do something about this feeling. That is an enormous step that I think is an underappreciated.
Life transitions have a kind of structure to them, there are distinct phases. There’s this “Long Goodbye,” where you say goodbye to the world that’s not coming back. There’s “the Messy Middle,” during which you shed habits that don’t work for you anymore and create new ones — the lean forward. And there’s “the New Beginning” where you unveil your new self. And so just understanding that there is a shape to these lifequakes and how we move through them is helpful.
Q: Got it. So you also talk about people who help us move forward. The categories of helpers as you defined are comforters, nudgers, slappers and modelers: Which is your favorite? I know what mine is.
BF: We each have certain types of help that we respond to. So some people like and need comfort: “I’m with you Stacy, you’re gonna get through it, I believe in you.” Or nudgers: “I love you, Stacy. But why don’t you try this?” And you’re like, “Hmm. Maybe I should try that.” Me, I like slappers.
Q: Me too!
BF: And some people need slappers: “I love you, Stacy, but get over yourself! Go post your resume!” Or “Go to AA!” Whatever it is. So when you realize you’re stuck, it’s time to call that person, the type that works for you. And, and finally ask for that advice.
I like slappers because I am a slapper. And because I respond to slappers. But I will say this about slappers: I can’t have a slapper unless I also have a comforter.
So the number one point is don’t go it alone. In storytelling terms, this is called having a “co-narrator.” Sometimes we need help telling our stories. So here’s an example: a kid starts to tell the story, “Oh yeah, Susie and I went to the playground and I tripped and hurt my knee.” Then a sibling chimes in, “That’s not what happened! Susie pushed you!” So the way I think about co-narration is, you have a story you’re telling about your life and suddenly it gets disrupted, you need a co-narrator to tell that story. You need an editor to help you tell that story.
Q: Is this why telling stories has so much power for older people? You asked your father, when he was in his darkest hours, to tell you one story about his life a week and it essentially brought him back to himself.
BF: We think of memories as objects that we put into the closet. You asked about college, say: so I’m going to go to the closet and I’m going to pull out my sorority pen or my yearbook or my econ textbook, as if memories are fixed objects. That’s not how memory works. Every time you go to the closet and reach for that memory, you recall it in a different way. The reason storytelling is so valuable for older people is that you are reprocessing and re-imagining, and retelling the story in the context of what’s important to you now.
Some people think, “I don’t want to revisit that painful period,” or “I know what happened at that time.” But you don’t know what you need from that pain now or what lesson you learned from that experience in the context of who you are now.
And so, you mentioned getting stuck and feeling mired. Or being in a pandemic, right? Having a diagnosis, having a tornado, having a downsizing, whatever it might be. Those disruptions are fundamentally a “meaning vacuum”; the basic building blocks of what’s important to you have been sucked out of your life. The only way to put them back is to do that yourself. And that is what the storytelling is: a kind of a meaning factory. The meaning we make, the story we tell, is what keeps us going.