Life is in the transitions: mastering change at any age

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 It had been replaced by what he termed “the nonlinear life” full of twists and turns and, ultimately, transitions that have to be navigated across the whole span of a life.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


1 comment

  1. I commend Stan’s review of the Feiler book which sounds to be very interesting. I rather liked his analogy between the coronavirus and the wolf, well conceived from the standpoint of a wildlife biologist!
    Feiler sees our life as a story with the many twists and turns which defines “who we are”. I am currently reading “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean. The passage (attached below) particularly resonated with me and seems to tie in with Feiler’s concept. The story of our life, past, present, and imagined future, can’t be left to dissipate; we have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to record and share that story on the page, recited or even woven as a textile. This is important.
    As all writers, readers, book-lovers and possibly weavers will agree, any mode of sharing can benefit us all, now, and for those yet to come. As our story is set down and saved it helps us define ourselves; it provides meaning as it fleshes out our story enabling it to merge into the wider scene. But it is not only our life, our story, but the compendium of stories which form the fabric of our society.
    Stan’s coronavirus wolf, imagined or real, is currently pawing at our doors especially for those of us who are locked into our silos. However, we can slay that beast, or defy it, by digging deep inside ourselves to transition into a new reality. We need to find Feiler’s narrative story, our story, with its volumes of emotions and experiences and share it with the world.
    [from Susan Orlean ‘The library book’]
    The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that 1, personally, will be forgotten, but thar we are all doomed to being forgotten – that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.
    In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited—it takes on a life of its own

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