Wisdom//

How to Make the Most of Our Collective Life Transition

Challenging times offer us a chance for meaning and renewal.

John Lund / Getty Images
John Lund / Getty Images

To say the world is in a state of transition is an almost comical understatement. We all have our individual challenges, but what we share is the fact that we have no idea what the shape of our daily lives will be in a year, or even in a few months. So it’s really the perfect time for Bruce Feiler’s new book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.

It’s one of those books that’s so profoundly aligned with the zeitgeist that you end up underlining the whole book, which defeats the purpose of underlining. But the timing wasn’t planned.The book is actually the culmination of a project that took over five years. Yetas Feiler put it, “What’s unique about this particular moment in history is that for the first time in 75 years, the entire country is going through a life transition together.”

As with any important book, it’s a Rorschach test. Each reader will take away a different big lesson from it, and that lesson may be different if they reread it at a different stage of their lives. For me, the biggest takeaway is how we can use this time of personal and collective transition to answer the fundamental need we all have to connect with something larger than ourselves. Any time our linear daily lives are disrupted, we are more drawn to reconnect with our nonlinear spiritual selves and more in need of that deeper connection.

Bruce Feiler is the perfect person to lead us on this journey. He’s been writing and speaking for years about how we nurture our spiritual selves and find meaning in our lives. He’s the best-selling author of Walking the Bible, and the host of the PBS show of the same name. In 2014, he hosted the PBS series “Sacred Journeys With Bruce Feiler,” in which he took viewers along six historic spiritual pilgrimages around the world. 

His new book began when he found himself in the middle of multiple personal crises and transitions: a cancer diagnosis, a near bankruptcy and his father’s attempted suicide. So he set out to interview 225 Americans, in all 50 states, who had been through profound crises and life changes, from divorce and life-threatening injuries to the loss of a child and career changes. He wanted to identify patterns and lessons learned. The result is intended to be “a tool kit for navigating these transitions.”

As Feiler notes, life is never the linear path we might expect or want it to be. We are always going to have disruptions. What has changed is that the number of disruptions is increasing. And since life transitions are both inevitable and increasing, Feiler asks: “Why do we insist on talking about these periods as something dire and defeating, as miserable slogs we have to grit, grind, or grovel our way through? As long as life is going to be full of plot twists, why not spend more time learning to master them?”

The key to coming through these transitions and the bigger changes Feiler calls “lifequakes” stronger than before is to use the time of disruption to connect with the core of who we are. “Perhaps the most important thing I learned in more than a thousand hours of interviews,” Feiler writes, “is that a life transition is a meaning-making exercise.”

These periods of disruption and transition offer unique opportunities for insight and wisdom, which is why they’re so central in sacred texts: “Most major religions include the idea that significant human breakthroughs include periods of disconnection and disorientation,” he writes. “Hindus call this phase forest dwelling; the Abrahamic faiths liken it to desert dwelling. Abraham goes forth into the unknown; Moses leads the Israelites into the wilderness; Jonah disappears into the whale; Jesus goes into the desert; Muhammad retreats to the mountaintop.”

And, as Feiler notes, we see the same thing in myths (Odysseus, Perseus and Jason) and fairytales (Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White). As Joseph Campbell wrote, “Crossing the threshold signifies that the Hero has finally committed to the Journey. He is prepared to cross the gateway that separates the Ordinary World from the Special World.”

Whether the transition is voluntary or involuntary, personal or collective, these periods, in which we become “exiles from the normal boundaries of life,” involve shedding and purging. That’s what connecting with the sacred in our lives is all about: sacrifice, renewal, and rebirth. As Feiler puts it, “I used to be that. Then I went through a change. Now I am this.”

That’s why these periods are such fertile ground for creativity. As Feiler writes, “creativity thrives on isolation and disconnection.” As he notes, history is filled with celebrated examples: from Michelangelo and Monet to Frida Kahlo and Beethoven, rising to new heights in their work as a response to disruption and adversity.

One of the keys to getting the most out of our transitions — and our lives in general — is to understand our lives as stories, which Feiler calls “the primary psychic unit of being alive,” making us “more human and more humane.” Stories are how we think and dream. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and of the past, present and future. Stories are how we connect with others and with ourselves. That’s why life transitions can seem so threatening. “A breach in narrative is an existential event,” Feiler writes.

But because life transitions are a break in our narrative, they also give us a chance to reflect on them, tend to them and “fix the plot holes in our life stories.” Feiler writes that transitions are “an autobiographical occasion, when we simply must take the opportunity to revisit, revise, and ultimately restart our internal autobiographies, making some tweaks, adding a new chapter or two, elevating or devaluing certain themes.”

How do we do this? The book is meant to be very practical, and I was delighted to see Feiler use the term “microsteps,” which is also the foundation of Thrive Global’s behavior change program. For us, they’re small, science-backed changes we can immediately incorporate into our daily lives. For Feiler, they’re “tools that everyone can master and that everyone deploys in their own idiosyncratic way.” This includes “accepting the situation, marking the change, shedding old ways, creating new outlets, sharing your transformation, unveiling your new self, telling your story.”

One powerful microstep is to simply write your own story. Feiler recounts a famous 1986 study by James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker asked a group of students to write about traumatic experiences in their lives, 15 minutes each evening for four consecutive nights. Though the writing experience was difficult — many cried during the process — one year later, the students had fewer visits to the health center and 70% said they understood themselves better. Follow-up studies even showed signs of a stronger immune system.

Many other studies show that sharing our experiences with others can have similar effects. “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness,” he writes. “Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.”

Another tool is gratitude. I’ve been a gratitude fangirl for years, and it’s one of the pillars of Thrive Global. And in Feiler’s interviews, gratitude emerged as one of the five themes that helped people find meaning in their transitions. Ritual was another key component of transitions. It’s an especially important tool, because, as Feiler writes: “In a world with no boundaries, rituals create demarcation. In moments of deluge, rituals provide containers. In periods of shape-shifting, rituals give shape.” Feiler also writes about the power of role models, who can have a “multiplier effect” to inspire “an entire country or an entire continent.”

The key about successful transitions is that they are more about meaning than about happiness: “Happiness is fleeting,” he writes, “while meaning is enduring; happiness concentrates on the self while meaning concentrates on things larger than the self; happiness focuses on the present while meaning focuses on stitching together the past, present and future.” Finding meaning is also the goal of the pilgrim — the subject of Feiler’s earlier exploration — to uproot from daily life in order to connect with the sacred or transcendent. When he hosted his show on pilgrims, Feiler noted how, even as traditional religions might be faltering, the hunger to nurture our spiritual selves is as strong as ever. “People are pulling away from formal institutions,” he said at the time, “but they’re not giving up on these core questions about who am I, how do I get through difficult times in my life, what does it mean to have values, how can I serve my community and is there a higher calling in some way.” 

And now, we don’t have to leave home and go on a pilgrimage to ask — and answer — those questions. The pandemic has put the entire world in a life transition: “The word I keep coming back to is humility, because if you haven’t had any of your bedrock beliefs challenged by this, then really you’re not paying attention. This is a virus of the body, but it’s also a virus of the mind,” he writes.

We can now use “this period in the wilderness” to connect with the nonrational and the sacred, and mindfully write the next chapter in our life stories. And we can do this not in spite of the challenges, but because of them. As Viktor Frankl wrote, “In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Meaning is strength. Our survival may depend on our seeking and finding it.”

Whatever life is going to look like in the coming years, we know it’s going to be different. We know we’re going to be different. So let’s use this time. “Transitions are not going away,” Feiler writes, “the key to benefiting from them is to not turn away. Don’t shield your eyes when the scary parts start; that’s when the heroes are made.”

Subscribe here for Arianna’s On My Mind Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.

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