We’re All Going through a ‘Lifequake’: Here’s How to Get Through It
Best-selling author Bruce Feiler had been living what he called a “linear life”—he discovered his calling, got married, and became a father all within the expected timeframe that society feeds us. Then in his early forties, Feiler got “walloped by life.” A cancer diagnosis. A near bankruptcy. And his father tried to take his own life six times. “This was an awful period where it felt like life was coming at me from all ways,” he says.
Feiler searched for a book to help him through these hard times, but he couldn’t find one. So he set out to write one. He traveled to all 50 states to interview hundreds of people who’d been through giant life changes, from losing loved ones to switching careers. Feiler learned that there is no such thing as a “linear life.” Big transitions, which Feiler calls “lifequakes,” happen all the time, and there are ways that we can cope with them. He compiles all these tools in his new book, Life Is in the Transitions.
Feiler recently joined Maria for a Sunday Paper Live to talk about his profound learnings, and the ways we can thrive during transition. In their conversation, which we’ve edited and condensed below, Feiler offers a positive spin on how to look at change and the counsel that we all need right now as we face a huge “lifequake”—the Election. “We can get through this together,” Feiler says. “You’re not alone. There are tools.”
1. We’re all in this major transition. So many people we talk to are anxious, afraid, at a loss of what to do. What is your advice for how to navigate this uncertain time?
I call these times lifequakes, and that’s really what they feel like. They’re higher on the Richter scale of consequences and they have aftershocks that last for years.
These times have a structure to them. There are phases to these transitions. What you’re going through may be voluntary (you may choose to be moving, or maybe you want to step back from your job to spend more time with your children) or involuntary (you may have lost your job or, God-forbid, lost a loved one), but [how] you go through must be voluntary. So you have to choose to lean in and take the steps that will help you get through this period.
2. You talk about the emotions under all of these transitions: fear, sadness, and shame. So many people are saying that they feel afraid right now. What are we afraid of?
[We are afraid] of the transitions, for when we first get into them.
I think there are two types of people. Some people make a 222-item to-do list and say. ‘I’m going to do it all this weekend and I’m going to be a transition superhero.’ Other people may be in a fetal position on the bed and can’t move. The truth is, when you look at enough of [these transitions], they have a structure to them. Transitions involved three phases:
- The first is the “long goodbye” where you have to mourn the world that is not coming back.
- Then there’s the “messy middle” where you shed certain habits and create new ones.
- And then there’s the “new beginning” where you finally unveil the new self.
That first one is the one we’re talking about: the long goodbye. Think about the pandemic. We had a national crisis in the long goodbye. We all thought that we’d go inside and then we’d go back to normal. We’re now over seven months in and we know we’re not going back to normal. So the long goodbye begins.
Number one: The first tool is to accept it. As said, of the three emotions that people struggle with […] the biggest emotion is fear. And so, what are you afraid of? Can I get through it? Will I run out of money? How will I live without this person? People are afraid that they won’t get through it. What they are sad about is: I liked my old life. I liked my status. I liked having money. Or I liked being married.
But then I ask people how they go through it, and this is interesting. Some people write down their feelings; that can be very comforting. Some people, like me, sort of buckle down, stop whining, and go to work. They plow their way through it. But 80 percent [of people] use rituals in some way. They hold a ceremony. They sing a certain song. They take a walk to a beloved place.
These rituals are ways of saying to yourself, our loved ones: You know what? I’m going through a difficult time, but I’m going to acknowledge that we’re not going back and I’m ready for that messiness that is often the phase that follows next.
3. You may know that you’re going through a hard time, but then what? Knowing is one thing, but then what are the tools that we need to actually get out of the lifequake?
There are tools that I developed. This is the backbone of Life Is in the Transitions.
The first one, which we just talked about, is to accept the emotions.
The second is to use rituals to identify and mark the emotions.
The third is to shed a habit. [This happens in] the “messy middle,” which is where a lot of people are right now. There are things people can do where they shed a habit. Pick a habit, a mindset, some way of living that is holding you back in some way. Maybe it’s drinking too much, maybe working too hard, maybe being a people pleaser. This shedding, the third tool, clears the way for one of the most thrilling parts [and fourth tool] of this process: creativity. People turn to astonishing acts of creativity. They sing. They dance. They write.
“These periods are difficult but they’re also opportunities for renewal and growth.”
Back to the pandemic, what was the number on cliché in the spring? Baking. We were going to sourdough our way through the pandemic. Just that act of creation, that you can make a blueberry muffin or you can make a Halloween decoration. Imaging that you can make this little thing better allows you to imagine that you can make yourself better, which you can.
4. Another interesting thing you’ve said is that a lot of people feel that they’re not living the life that they thought they were going to live. In particular, so many women that you’ve studied feel like they’re not in the right life. Why is that?
The big idea that emerged from this project, which I think that women understood first, is that the “linear life” is dead. The idea that you’re going to have one job, one home, one relationship, one source of happiness from adolescence to assisted living—that’s gone. That’s been replaced by what I call the “non-linear life,” which has many more ups and downs. The truth is, that linear life was actually something of an aberration. In the ancient world, they thought life was a cycle. During the middle ages they thought life is a staircase up to middle age and then down. So that’s no new love at 40, no new job at 50, no retiring at 60 and opening a B&B.
This idea of the linear life was really an artificial construct of the 20th century. You think of Gail Sheehy back in the seventies writing Passages. The subtext of that book is that everyone does the same things in their twenties, in their thirties, and everyone has a midlife crisis when they’re thirty-nine-and-a-half. That’s totally bunk.
If you think of the pandemic, if you’re thirty-nine and a half you’re having a crisis. But if you’re twenty-seven you’re having a crisis, if you’re sixty-seven you’re having a crisis, if you’re fifteen you’re having a crisis. The point is that these transitions, these interruptions, come at all times in our life. My data shows that we have three to five of these earthquakes in our lives, and they last, on average, four to five years. That means 25 years, half of our adult lives, we’re spending in transition. That’s why this book is called Life Is in the Transitions because if we look at these transitions as miserable periods that we have to slog our way through, then we’re blowing half of our life. These periods are difficult but they’re also opportunities for renewal and growth.
5. Our perspective on those transitions is everything.
You just put your finger on it. If you go back 100 years, we were told that we had to live how our parents wanted us to live, believe what they want us to believe, love who they wanted us to love, do what they wanted us to do. The good news is that we live and believe and love who we want to love. That’s the good news. But the bad news is we get writers’ block writing our own story. We are overwhelmed by all the choices that we have to make. Fundamentally, what a transition is, is it’s basically a breach in the normal.
When I said earlier that women pioneered this, it’s because many women got off the path to have children or stepped away because they needed to care for an aging relative. And originally, many people who do that feel that they cannot get back on. The good news is when it’s non-linear, you can get back on anytime. That’s the blessing, but the problem is it’s hard.
Here’s the way to think about this: A transition is a breach in the normal. It’s basically a meaning vacuum where the main sources of meaning in our life are sucked out. There are three primary ways we make meaning, which I call the ABCs of meaning.
- The A is Agency. That is what we do or make or create.
- The B is Belonging. That is our relationships, family, loved ones, neighbors, church community, or whatever it might be.
- And the C is our Cause. That is something higher than ourselves.
We all have our ABCs of meaning in a different priority. What happens is when you’re in a transition, you kind of shape shift. Maybe you’ve been working hard, and you want to spend more time with your family. Or maybe you’ve been a primary caretaker and you burn out and you want to do something for yourself. In these opportunities, while it’s painful, think: Am I prioritizing the right things, or do I want to rethink how I spend my time and how I prioritize who I am?
6. Is this something that we should assess every year or every couple of years? Or is this something that bubbles up and then we realized it?
The way to think about it is that you or someone you know is in a lifequake—right now. About 53 percent of our lifequakes are involuntary. That means we have a diagnosis, we lose a job, the pandemic. But 47 percent are voluntary. We choose to move, or start a new venture, or start a family. With that said, another one of my tools is that you do not want to do this alone. So if you’re in a lifequake, find a loved one and go through it with them. If you’re blessed not to be, chances are that you or someone you know or in your family is, so reach out to them and be the support.
Whatever you’re struggling with now, whatever kept you awake last night, if you come on this journey with me you are going to find people who were in a similar situation, and many much more elaborate, and they got through them. The number one message here is that transitions work. Life gets you stuck, and this is what gets you unstuck.
7. The entire country is going to go through this lifequake called the election. People are hysterical about it on all sides. What’s your advice on how we can all manage the quake and move forward together?
Life transitions have three phases. The first is the long goodbye. So the first thing we’re going to have to do is acknowledge that this election is beyond us. We have to say goodbye, it’s been an emotional period and we have to move to what comes next. If Trump wins, we have to say: Okay the country has re-embraced this. If Biden wins, it’s going to be painful […] to say goodbye to the existing administration. But that’s the important part: You can’t go to the next stage until you say goodbye.
Then there is this messy middle. We’re going to have to shed habits and create new ones. What I really hope is that we see this as an opportunity for creativity, and mending, and healing and reaching out to someone maybe we disagree with, because if we don’t do that we’re really in trouble.
And then the most important part is to get to a new beginning, where we move beyond the red and blue and realize that we do have problems here and now that we need to address. That this new beginning [will be about] saying that the transition is over and now let us live in this together for a while before we get into another one of these. That’s incredibly important and I hope we embrace that.
To learn more about Bruce Feiler, visit: www.brucefeiler.com.
This interview was featured in the November 1, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.