Bruce Feiler: Coronavirus challenges are one of many transitions we will experience -- here's how to survive

I spent the last five years performing the biggest study of life transitions in half a century

Stop for a second and listen to what people are saying – or at least suggesting – in the conversations we’re all having every day. I’m worried. I’m afraid. I’m overwhelmed. I’m unsure.

In a sense, everyone is expressing some version of the same thing.

Am I going to be OK?

SIGNS OF DEPRESSION OR ANXIETY SEEN IN ONE-THIRD OF ADULTS, CENSUS FIGURES SHOW

And it’s no wonder.

Covid-19 has brought a crush of change to every household in America. Tens of millions of us have lost jobs, lost loved ones; are rethinking our careers, where we want to live; are struggling with how we care for our children, how we protect our aging parents.

The way we cope with such changes is called a “life transition” and learning to master these challenging periods just may be the most essential life skill each of us needs right now.

I spent the last five years performing the biggest study of life transitions in half a century. Spurred by a string of personal crises—a life-threatening cancer diagnosis, a near bankruptcy, a string of suicide attempts by my father—I crisscrossed the country, collecting the life stories of hundreds of Americans in all 50 states who’d been through wrenching life changes. These included people who lost limbs, lost homes, changed careers, changed religions, got sober, got out of bad marriages.

These stories changed my life and filled me with hope. I think they'll do the same for you. Plus, they offered fresh, practical tips for what we’re all dealing with these days.

A small sample of the people I interviewed includes:

  • a member of the first class of Delta Force who became a crime novelist,
  • a two-time cancer survivor who climbed Mount Everest,
  • the Army Ranger who discovered Saddam Hussein,
  • a country music songwriter who became a Lutheran pastor,
  • a magazine writer turned mortician,
  • a theoretical physicist who stepped down from a tenured professorship to devote himself to his YouTube band called Ninja Sex Party,
  • three people who went to prison,
  • four people who died and came back to life,
  • five people who saved their marriages by getting sober,
  • six people who survived natural disasters.

With a team of twelve, I then spent a year combing through these conversations teasing out patterns and takeaways that can help all of us survive and thrive in times of instability.

What I learned is that the variety of changes we experience in our lives is increasing and the pace at which we experience them is quickening.

Three to five times in our lives those changes rise to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us.

I call these events “lifequakes,” because they’re higher on the Richter Scale of consequences, the damage they cause can be devastating, and their aftershocks can last for years.

The good news: Lifequakes lead to life transitions.

If lifequakes make us feel stuck; a transition is how we get unstuck. And there are tools to make that easier.

I believe the most exciting thing I’ve identified is the first new model for how to navigate life transitions in 50 years, which includes a clear, concrete roadmap for transforming times of chaos and upheaval into periods of creativity and growth.

The most challenging step may be the first. Lifequakes can be voluntary or involuntary, but the transitions that grow out of them must be voluntary.

Ninety percent of the people I interviewed said their transition was successful. Why? Because a transition is the slow, effortful process of turning the cacophony of a lifequake into the melody of everyday life.

You must choose to enter this state of change. Once you do, there are surprising patterns that can increase the odds that you’ll make the most of these periods.

One revelation is that while transitions might seem disorganized and unstructured, they actually have a remarkably consistent shape.

Transitions involve three distinct phases. I call them “the long goodbye,” “the messy middle” and “the new beginning.”

As a rule, I found that each person gravitates to the phase they’re naturally adept at and gets stuck in the one they’re weakest at.

While some people hate saying goodbye (39 percent in my study), others excel at it. Nina Collins, a onetime literary agent from Brooklyn who lost her mother when she was 19, went on to have multiple careers and multiple marriages. “I’m very decisive at saying goodbye,” she said. “My therapist once said I under-attach to things. I think it’s because my mother died young.”

Many bog down in the messy middle (47 percent in my study), but some thrive.

Former Army Sgt. Zachary Herrick, who was raised by adoptive parents in Kansas, had most of his face shot off in Afghanistan and required 31 surgeries between his nose and his chin.

After coming close to suicide, he turned to cooking, poetry and painting. “I paint flowers, trees, stuff like that,” he said. “But I’m an infantryman, what I really enjoy is exploding paint on the canvas. You know that guy? Jackson Pollock. Like him.”

He added, “Instead of taking down the enemy with a gun, now I do it with a strong vocabulary or a beautiful painting.”

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Sgt. Herrick’s story hints at a larger truth. If you understand and deploy the skills of navigating a life transition—accepting your emotions, using rituals to say goodbye to your own self, shedding certain habits, experimenting with new ones, unveiling your new self—they can be remarkably freeing, even renewing.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in more than a thousand hours of interviews is that transitions work.

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Ninety percent of the people I interviewed said their transition was successful. Why? Because a transition is the slow, effortful process of turning the cacophony of a lifequake into the melody of everyday life.

And transitions are essential to being alive. My research shows that we spend half our lives in these unsettled states.

You or someone you know is going through one right now. As long as we have to spend so much time in transition, we should stop viewing them as periods we have to grit and grind our way through.

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We should see them instead for what they are: healing periods that take the wounded parts of lives and begin to repair them.

William James said it best a century ago and we should heed his wisdom: “Life is in the transitions.” Transitions are not going away; they key to benefiting from them is not turn away. Don’t shield your eyes with the scary parts start; that’s when the heroes are made.

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