Life Is In The Transitions: Mastering Change At Any Age
by Bruce Feiler
Penguin Random House LLC 2020| 368pp.
Believe it or not, we are now in the ninth month of the COVID-19 crisis. According to the WHO the present epidemic raised its spiky viral head for the first time on 31 December 2019. It reached the shores of B.C. in late January of this year. That’s only 9 months, but to most of us locals it has seemed closer to an eternity. For many, especially of the younger persuasion, the epidemic has been little more than an inconvenience. For us elders the potential consequences are disastrous, so its clearly a matter of perspective.
In his latest book, author Bruce Feiler terms such an event a “life quake”, i.e. one of great magnitude felt simultaneously around the world, and which has aftershocks that last for years. Feiler is a high-demand speaker on a wide array of topics relating to motivation, meaning, health, wellness and suchlike. Although an accomplished author in his own right, he admits to not having been able to find a book that would help deal with Covid-like situations where “life seems to come at you from all directions”.
So he set out to produce such a guide and spent time crisscrossing the US to collect hundreds of life anecdotes from people who lost limbs, lost homes, changed careers, changed religions, got sober, got out of bad marriages, etc. The results were handed over to a team of 12 analysts who spent a year combing through the stories, coding and trying to tease out ideas that could help others survive their ordeals and actually thrive in times of change.
The over-riding concept that emerged from Feiler’s team analysis was that “the linear life is dead”. By this Feiler and his team meant that the long-held idea that society was centered around the concepts of stability, one job, one home, one relationship and one source of happiness from adolescence to assisted-living was dead and gone. It had been replaced by what he termed “the nonlinear life” full of twists and turns and, ultimately, transitions that have to be navigated across the whole span of a life.
If one accepts and seeks to fit into the the ‘non-liner life’ concept, then the next key element to understand is that any “life quake” which one encounters could be voluntary or involuntary. Choosing to change careers or to leave a marriage would be regarded as basically voluntary. Being fired or losing a limb in an accident are clearly involuntary. Feiler’s point here is that regardless of whether a significant change in situation is voluntary or involuntary, the life transitions that result from it must be voluntary. One must choose to “lean in” and go through the steps of recovery or reestablishment.
Feiler refers to the current Covid crisis as a “collective”, more specifically a collective, involuntary life quake. It is the first collective in a century which encompasses the entire planet. However, he stresses that it is deceiving since, while it may seem that most of humanity is going through the crisis together, the way it is actually playing out and will ultimately affect each of us is going to be different.
Some may choose to move, others will hunker down. Some will seek to gain personal advantage from the situation, others will seek more community involvement. Many will choose to rethink how they are going to take care of their children. Whatever the underlying dynamic, says Feiler, the first and most important thing is to decide which transition one wants to go through that’s emerging from the prevailing life quake.
Feiler writes that, at its core, life transition is a narrative event. He refers to the story in your head around who you are, where you each came from, who you want to be, and where you think you’re going. That story, he says, isn’t part of you, it is fundamentally who you are. Life is the story that you tell yourself, and so it’s only you who can give meaning to your own life. In other words, it’s not the job. Ultimately this is a kind of act of self-definition that helps you succeed or go through this more than anything else.
We like to think of other stories as fairy tales, with heroes and happy endings. But in those fairy tales it’s the wolf that shows up. There is always a wolf or a dragon or an ogre or a tornado or a downsizing or a death or a pandemic. In order for that story to work you have to figure out a way to get around or through or under the wolf. Right now we are all facing the same wolf, and we have to understand that that’s fundamentally what life is about.
Whatever transition we’re in, we can make it go a little bit better and a lot more effectively. There is knowledge available out there. We can do it together. We can get past these wolves.
Reviewed by Stan Hirst, 2019