By Bruce Feiler
The Italians have a wonderful expression for how our lives get upended when we least expect it: “lupus in fabula.” It means “the wolf in the fairy tale.” Just when life is going swimmingly, along comes a demon, a dragon, a diagnosis, a downsizing. Just when our fairy tale seems poised to come true, a big, scary thing threatens to destroy everything around it.
Today, for the first time in over a century, the entire planet is confronting the same wolf at the same time. In the United States alone, more than 130,000 families have lost loved ones; tens of millions of us have lost jobs, or may be rethinking our careers or where we want to live. We are reconsidering how we care for our families, what gives us meaning. 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 talking to people about the biggest transitions of their lives. Spurred by a back-to-back-to-back set of personal crises — a cancer diagnosis, a near bankruptcy, a suicide attempt by my father — I crisscrossed the country, collecting the life stories of hundreds of Americans in all 50 states who had been through wrenching life changes. I then spent a year combing through those stories, teasing out patterns and takeaways that can help all of us battle our wolves more effectively.
What I learned is that massive life disruptions — or “lifequakes,” as I call them — strike people in the core of their being. They create meaning vacuums, in which we feel frightened, overwhelmed and stuck.
A transition is how we get unstuck. A lifequake may be voluntary (we leave a bad marriage, start a new enterprise) or involuntary (we get laid off, become ill), but the transition must be voluntary. We must choose to take the steps and go through the process of turning our fear and anxiety into renewal and growth.
So what tools are most effective? Based on the patterns I found in my research, here are five tips that you or a loved one can use right now that will make whatever life transition you’re experiencing go more efficiently.
1. Start with your transition superpower
Once you enter a transition, you often feel either chaotic and out of control or sluggish and stuck in place. But my conversations suggest there is surprising order to these times.
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For starters, transitions have three phases. I call them “the long goodbye,” in which you mourn the old you; “the messy middle,” in which you shed habits and create new ones; and “the new beginning,” in which you unveil your fresh self. These phases need not happen in order. Each person tends to gravitate to the phase they’re best at (their transition superpower) and get bogged down in the one they’re weakest at (their transition kryptonite).
While 40 percent find saying goodbye the hardest, others are quick to shut doors. While nearly half say the messy middle is hardest, others relish it. Jenny Wynn, a minister in Scottsdale, Ariz., initially resisted the call to replace her senior minister at a previous church after he died suddenly. But once she accepted, she thrived. She took a sabbatical, began drawing, had his office repainted. “I needed time to transition my own thinking,” she said, “and I needed the congregation to transition how they thought of me.”
2. Identify your emotions
I asked all the people I interviewed the greatest emotion they struggled with during their transition. At 27 percent, fear was the most popular reaction, followed by sadness and shame. Some people coped with these emotions by writing down their feelings; others plunged into new tasks.
But nearly eight in 10 said they turned to rituals. They sang, danced, hugged, purged, tattooed, sky-dived, schvitzed. They changed their names, went to sweat lodges, got tattoos.
Following a brutal year in which she lost her job in Hollywood, had a blowup with her mother, and went on 52 first dates, Lisa Rae Rosenberg jumped out of an airplane. “I had a terrible fear of heights, and I thought, if I can figure this out, I can figure anything out.” A year later she was married with a child.
Ritualistic gestures like these are especially effective during the long goodbye as they’re statements — to ourselves and to others — that we’ve gone through a change and are ready for what comes next.
3. Shed something
Once we enter the messy middle, we shed things: mind-sets, routines, delusions, dreams. Like animals who molt when they enter a new phase, we cast off parts of our personality or bad habits.
After Michael Mitchell, a hard-driving urologist from Wisconsin, retired from four decades in medicine, he had to dispense with the idea that he should always be doing something constructive.
After Loretta Parham, a librarian in Atlanta, lost her daughter in a car accident and stepped in to raise her granddaughters, she had to give up merely indulging them and instead become more of a disciplinarian.
After John Austin stepped down from 25 years as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, he had to get used to not having a gun. “Wait, now I have to persuade people to listen to me? I used to be able to compel them.”
Shedding is a way to clear out some unwanted parts of our lives to make way for the new parts to come.The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Updated July 23, 2020
- What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
- Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
- What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
- What’s the best material for a mask?
- Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
- Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
4. Try something creative
In a pattern I didn’t see coming, a remarkable number of people I interviewed turned to creativity while undergoing the shifts in their lives. They start to dance, cook, paint; they write poems, thank-you notes, diary entries.
At the moment of greatest chaos, they respond with creation.
Sarah Rose Siskind, a firebrand intellectual from California, learned to play the ukulele while going through a depression after leaving her job as a writer at Fox News and renouncing her conservative views.
Dwayne Hayes, a computer programmer in Michigan, was so shaken after his wife gave birth to stillborn twins that he quit his job and started a magazine about fatherhood.
Helen Kim, who stepped down from teaching college biology in the wake of her stomach cancer, fulfilled a girlhood dream by taking classes in adult ballet.
What people seem to crave from these acts is what creation has represented since the dawn of time: a fresh start.
5. Rewrite your life story
A life transition is fundamentally a meaning-making exercise. It is an autobiographical occasion, in which we are called on to revise and retell our life stories, adding a new chapter in which we find meaning in our lifequake. The lifequake itself may have been positive or negative, but the story we tell about it has an ending that’s upbeat and forward-looking.
And that may be the greatest lesson of all: We control the stories we tell about our transitions. Instead of viewing them as periods we have to grind our way through, we should see them for what they are: healing periods that take the frightened parts of our lives and begin to repair them.
We can’t keep the wolves from interrupting our fairy tales, and that’s OK. Because if you banish the wolf, you banish the hero. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that we all need to be the hero of our own story.
Bruce Feiler is the author of The New York Times column “This Life.” This article is adapted from his new book, “Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.”