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How to Handle Lifequakes and Life Disruptors

What 'Life Is In the Transitions' author Bruce Feiler learned from his research


Life transitions can be jarring at any age, but they often pile on top of each other in your 50s and 60s. Transitioning to retirement…to empty-nesterhood…perhaps to a single life…living through a health trauma. Heck, it’s partly why our site is called Next Avenue. Bruce Feiler, author of the excellent new book, Life Is In the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, knows all about it.

Feiler, 55, a brilliant storyteller (Walking the Bible, The Council of Dads…) interviewed 225 people of all ages to learn about the transitions they experienced and are experiencing. The new book’s title comes from the phrase William James, the founder of modern psychology, coined a century and a half ago.

Life Is in the Transitions: Two Types

Life Is in the Transitions is flying off bookshelves (“it had four printings in ten days,” Feiler told me) and I think is worth reading, especially for people in midlife or beyond. I recently interviewed Feiler about transitions — which he says are sometimes disruptors and sometimes “lifequakes” — and how to manage them and thrive from them. Highlights:

Next Avenue: You write that the idea for the book came partly out of your father, who had Parkinson’s, going on what you call a ‘suicide spree.’ What happened and how did that lead to the book?

Bruce Feiler: At its simplest, this is a book about lifequakes; those periods when life is coming at you from all directions and I went through a lifequake.

“We go through three dozen life transitions in our lives; one every twelve to eighteen months. That’s more often than most people see a dentist.”

I had this back-to-back-to-back set of disruptive life experiences: cancer at forty-three as a new dad; I almost went bankrupt and then my dad tried to take his own life six times within twelve weeks.

I’m ‘the story guy’ so I started sending my father questions about his life and it worked [ending his suicide attempts]. I began to realize that going through a life transition was fundamentally a narrative experience. Life transitions are the times in our lives when we don’t know how to tell the stories of our lives anymore.

I started telling my story of my dad to people and everyone had a similar story: ‘My wife had a headache and went to the hospital and died;’ ‘My boss stole money from me…” There wasn’t a book on how to get through a period like this asking the questions I wanted to ask, so I thought: ‘Let me go talk to people and get others’ life stories and see how they talked themselves through difficult times to help me get through my difficult time.’

It became pretty clear everybody had defining life transitions. Then I’d ask people: What worked and what didn’t work? I realized certain patterns kept appearing.

Disruptors and LifeQuakes

Can you explain the difference between transitions that are ‘disruptors’ and ones that are ‘lifequakes?’

The number of changes we go through in life is quickening; the pace we’re going through them is faster and our breadth of life experiencing them is wider. The basic unit of change is a disruptor, because it’s value neutral: some disruptors are negative and some are positive. You can be becoming an empty nester or getting married or getting sober or retiring. You can also be getting a diagnosis or losing a job in the pandemic.

"Life is in the Transitions" book

We go through three dozen life transitions in our lives; one every twelve to eighteen months. That’s more often than most people see a dentist.

But every now and then, disruptors rise to the level of a lifequake — a massive source of change that lasts for years. That’s what we’re all in now [with the coronavirus pandemic]; a collective lifequake.

Lifequakes tend to clump up; I call this the pileup phenomenon. Just when you lose your job, you wreck your car and you’re going to move and your mother-in-law needs cataract surgery.

Why are the number of disruptors quickening and faster?

A hundred years ago, most people had to live where their parents wanted them to live and do what their parents wanted them to do. We believed that’s what we wanted. We have a lot more freedom now. Now you can move at retirement or start a new venture or go from working to giving back or volunteering. We have many more choices and opportunities.

Life Transitions of People in Their 50s and 60s

You interviewed people of all ages, but I’d like to focus on ones in their fifties and sixties.

In general, the skills for navigating transitions for people fifty-plus are the same as for people fifty-minus.

You found that for people in their fifties and sixties, their most common low point was between age forty-five and forty-nine. Why was that?

A lot of things come at you at that time of life: financial pressures, aging parents.

Do people over fifty — boomers and some Gen Xers — deal with transitions the way people under fifty do?

A big idea of the book is that a linear life is dead; the idea that we’re going to have one job, one relationship, one home, one spirituality, one source of happiness — that’s gone. It’s been replaced by a nonlinear life with many more twists and turns and transitions. Gen Xers understand that more intuitively than do boomers and millennials understand it more than Xers.

So, people in their fifties and sixties are surprised to discover the pace of change is quickening. They’re more resistant to it than millennials. It’s the transition gap.

We fifty-plus people were told the only permissible crisis was a midlife crisis. Our children don’t believe that. They live in a world of disruption and they’re fine with it. It’s a learned skill for the parents.

The 3 Phases of Transitions

Are people over fifty generally good at navigating transitions, based on your research?

There are three phases of transitions: The Long Goodbye, The Messy Middle and The New Beginning.

“The stage of life in your sixties and seventies when you’re dealing with medical issues and moves and empty nestings — these are the pileup years.”

The Long Goodbye is where you say goodbye to a life that is not coming back. You’re no longer going to have this job or your legs or have children in your house. You have to say goodbye. People tend to skip over this phase. It’s the hardest phase of the pandemic: we spent months thinking we were going back [to life before the pandemic]; we’re not going back and you need to mourn that.

The Messy Middle is when you are shedding certain habits and mindsets and creating new ones.

The New Beginning is when you are unveiling your new self. It’s time to update your story and tell other people.

I’m telling you these phases in an order. You don’t have to do them in that order, but you do have to do all three.

I don’t think the fifty-plus cohort is instinctually less good at them.

What does happen later in life, and I’m speculating, is there’s a higher degree of likelihood you’re going to have a pileup. The stage of life in your sixties and seventies when you’re dealing with medical issues and moves and empty nestings — these are the pileup years.

Is having three disruptors at once three times harder than just having one?

There are pros and cons.

The disadvantage is that they’re coming at you from all directions and you kind of have to prioritize them. I can’t think about moving now; I have to pay the bills. Or I can’t worry about not being happy in my job, I have to make sure I get my dialysis.

The positive side is that it breaks down your resistance much more quickly.

What’s good about going through life transitions?

When you know ‘I’m going to enter a transition,’ that gives you an incredible sense of agency and that’s very fulfilling. It doesn’t mean it’s going to get easier.

If you’re in a pileup — you’re an empty nester and you lost your job and decided you’ve got to move — once you start purging and imagining the new place, it’s much easier to be in the transition than wallowing with the fear of ‘Do I want to be in it?’

Do transitions relate to finding meaning and purpose in life?

They do. Transitions involve rebalancing the source of meaning in our lives. We navigate through the ABCs of meaning: A is Agency  — what you do and what you make; B is Belonging — that’s relationships; family and neighbors, colleagues and C is your Cause that’s higher than yourself.

When people say: ‘I want a more meaningful life’ they’re maybe saying: ‘I’m working too hard and I want to focus on my family’ or ‘I’m now an empty nester and I want to give back.’ We reweight the ABCs of meaning.

Tools for Navigating Life Disruptors and Lifequakes

You have seven tools for navigating life disruptors and lifequakes. The first is Accept It. What do you mean and how do you do it?

Going through a lifequake is an emotional experience, but not necessarily the emotions you might expect. The number one emotion people said was fear, number two was sadness and number three was shame. I wouldn’t have put shame on the list.

“If you want the transition to end, let’s end the story by writing an ending that has an upbeat ending.”

So how do you get beyond it? Some people write their feelings down. That can be very powerful. Eighty percent of people use rituals — burying something in the ground, getting a tattoo, putting a memento on a shelf.

Another tool is Shed It. What does that mean and how do you do it?

Once you’re in The Messy Middle, you’re not going back. You have to groom for the new and shed habits. You now have less money, so you need to go out to eat less. Or you’re trying to lose weight, so you shed your habit of opening the refrigerator every hour looking for something to eat.

Author Bruce Feiler
Author Bruce Feiler

It makes room for astonishing creativity. I was surprised by people who started to dance or play the ukulele or cook or paint poetry.

Some of these are ‘new things I always wanted to’ fill the blank: play tennis, bake, sing opera. A lot are archaeology: going back to your childhood. ‘I wish I didn’t stop playing piano,’ but I was busy and working and I had family obligations.

Some of the creative exercises are new and some are digging from the back of the closet.

Your last tool is: Tell It: Compose a Fresh Story. What do you mean?

If you want the transition to end, let’s end the story by writing an ending that has an upbeat ending. Add a new chapter to your life story where something constructive comes out of the transition, even a difficult time. You can finally close that chapter. You control the story.

What is your advice specifically for people to help them best manage transitions they’re going through or might go through in the future?

You can get through it.

RIchard Eisenberg, editor at Next Avenue wearing a suit jacket in front of a teal background.
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

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