Author Bruce Feiler On Life-Altering Transitions

Jul 18, 2020
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you've turned on the news at all today, then you've probably heard somebody talking about whether to reopen schools or the fight over wearing masks or whether it's safe to go back to the gym. And it's easy to forget just how different our lives are from even a few months ago because of the coronavirus and because of our efforts to deal with it.

All over the country, people are living through tremendous change - working at home or not working at all, worrying about loved ones, missing friends and gatherings - so much change in such a short period of time. And who knows how long it's going to go on?

In a new book, bestselling author Bruce Feiler writes about this, but not because of the current crisis. He actually spent years talking to hundreds of people about life-altering transitions. And he writes about what he learned in "Life Is In The Transitions: Mastering Change At Any Age." And he is with us now.

Bruce Feiler, welcome. It's so good to talk with you again.

BRUCE FEILER: Thank you, Michel. It's so lovely to be with you again.

MARTIN: And let me just say you don't waste any time with this book. You start the book - forgive me, folks for whom this is going to be a shock - talking about your father trying to kill himself and your stuff - your bone cancer diagnosis. You said you almost went bankrupt. So now that you've gotten our attention, why did you start there?

FEILER: What became the essence of this project, as you just said, was talking to people all over the country about their stuff. And I thought, I can't talk to these people about their stuff unless I'm willing to be honest and vulnerable about my own stuff.

And the way I think about this now, Michel, is that I was living what I now think of as a linear life - that I discovered what I wanted to do early in my life. I did it for no money. I had some success. I got married. I had children. And then I just got walloped by life, as you mentioned. I got cancer. I almost went bankrupt. And my dad, who has Parkinson's, tried to take his own life multiple times. And we were struggling in my family with how to deal with this - business and medical.

But I'm the story guy, the meaning guy, and so I - on a whim, I started this project with my dad where every Monday morning for years, I would send him a question about his life. Tell me about the house you grew up in, or how you became an Eagle Scout, how you met mom. And this man who had never written a memo backed into writing an autobiography, and I got incredibly interested in how we tell our story.

And what I realized is there wasn't a book out there for how you navigate a time like this, when you go through what I now call a life-quake. And I thought, well, kind of I'm a traveler. Let me go out and talk to other people, see what wisdom they have. And let's see if I can try to learn something that will help me and other people who might be in this kind of situation.

MARTIN: Yeah, talk a little bit more about what that is. I mean, you talk about transitions as a vital period of adjustment, creativity and rebirth that helps one find meaning after a major life disruption. And you talk about various kinds of transitions, but the biggest is what you call a life-quake. What is that, and why is that so important?

FEILER: So a life-quake is what we're in now. It's a massive life change that's kind of higher on the Richter scale of consequences and has aftershocks for years. So you began this conversation by talking about change. And what my data show was that we all will go through one disrupter every 12 to 18 months. That could be an accident. It could be getting married. It could be changing jobs. It could be moving. Most of these were pretty good. We get through them without major upset to our lives.

But three to five times in our lives, we have one of these massive changes. That's the life-quake. And the - what I discovered was that it takes an average of four, five years to get through this. That's what the data show. And so when you think about this, three to five times in our lives, we're going to go through a transition that's going to take four to five years. That's 25 years. That's half of our adult lives we are in periods of change.

And because we're going to do this more frequently, that's why I have come to believe that managing these transitions, mastering the toolkit - it's, like, the most essential life skill that each of us needs right now.

MARTIN: I know you could not possibly have envisioned this in your research, but isn't there a difference between people who are sort of choosing a life-quake and people having it imposed upon them?

FEILER: This was the biggest change that I went through while working on this story, is that I expected there to be a different toolkit for if it was a medical problem or a work problem or a relationship problem, voluntary or involuntary. I was just flat wrong about this. It turns out that the tools for navigating it are the same whether it was voluntary or involuntary - also, personal versus collective.

This is a collective, involuntary life-quake that we're going through. But here's the thing, Michel - the life-quake that we're going through is involuntary. We're all going through it together. But the transitions that are going to come out of this are going to be individual to each person. So each person needs to decide what about themselves are they compelled to or do they want to change. And then once you go into it, it turns out that the feelings are the same.

I'll give you an example. The first question I asked everybody in my conversations was, what's the biggest emotion that you struggled with, OK? No. 1 answer - fear. No. 2 - sadness. No. 3 - shame. And so then I said to people, OK, how did you tame these feelings? Some people wrote them down. Some people buckled down and went to work.

But 80% - 8-0 - used rituals of some kind. They sang. They danced. They had memorial services. They got tattoos. They jumped out of airplanes - something to say to themselves and to others that the past is over, and I'm now heading in a new direction. The way I think about it now is the life-quake is when we get stuck, and the life transition is the mechanism for getting unstuck.

MARTIN: So what's your advice here? I mean, I - obviously, you wrote a whole book about this, and it's really fascinating. It's moving to hear all these different stories. I have to say just the fact of reading it makes you feel less alone, right? Just the fact of recognizing that so many people have gone through all these things makes you feel less alone. But give us some strategies. Give us some specifics. What are some things people can do right now if they're feeling the way you just described?

FEILER: So two things you can do right now is there are two processes that you go through in the middle. One is you shed something, OK? So find something about yourself right now that you don't like and say you're going to shed it. So when you shed something, it might be people-pleasing, drinking too much, working too hard.

You make room for what comes next, which was another massive surprise for me which I just love, which is people turn to astonishing acts of creativity. They sing. They dance. I talked to a woman who stepped down from being a biology professor in Alabama after she had stomach cancer, and she fulfilled a childhood dream, and she took up adult ballet. So creativity helps us create ourselves anew.

MARTIN: What do you say to people who are really up against it, Bruce? I mean, you know, we have people right now who don't have enough to eat. I mean, you know, there are people that - you know, the lines to pick up food in some places are miles long. I know you've seen this.

So what do you say to people who might be listening to our conversation while they're in one of those lines to pick up food, waiting for hours, or who are in one of those lines to get a COVID test waiting in a 100-degree heat for hours, who just say, I am so up against it. I have nothing left. How can I be creative and, you know, pour into and shed and all that? Like, what do you say to them?

FEILER: You're not alone. The reason that the great stories of scripture have survived for centuries is that they all have periods of isolation and fear, whether it's the Israelites going into the wilderness or whether it's Hindis going into the forest. Like, the great myths of all time - Odysseus, Achilles, Jason, Hercules - part of life is going through this pain. And I'm - I feel for what you're going through. It's not of your choosing. It's not your fault.

And I will say one thing that will make going through the wilderness or waiting in that line better is sharing it with somebody else. Like, reach out to someone who can offer you comfort along the way. And if you're fortunate enough not to be in that line, find somebody who is or who's in a difficult situation and offer to go through it with them.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I can't glide past where we started our conversation, which is you were up against it. Your dad was going through a hard time. You were going through a hard time. Your family's going through a hard time. Do you mind if I ask, how are you doing?

FEILER: We're doing OK. My dad has - is working now at 85 on finishing the collection of life stories that he did. And for me personally, you know, what I feel about this whole experience, Michel, is that, you know, we talked about tools and road map. I feel like this experience of talking to these hundreds of Americans in all 50 states - it was like a tool factory to me. First of all, it made me grateful for all of the hardships that I haven't gone through - at least for now.

And it made me feel that what had happened to me - and this is what I felt like when the pandemic came. It's, like, OK, this is one of those moments. I didn't seek it out, but I do have things I felt like I could do. And I believe they'll do the same for you. So, you know, if you come on this journey with me and meet these people, you're going to find something to help whatever you're struggling with in whatever life transition you're in, you know, go a little bit better and a lot more effectively. Like, we can get through this together.

MARTIN: That's Bruce Feiler. His latest book, "Life Is In The Transitions: Mastering Change At Any Age," is out now.

Bruce Feiler, thank you so much for joining us.

FEILER: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "AUTUMN SWEATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.