Open Book

Disrupters and Lifequakes

Moving Through the Big Transitions

Magazine Issue
September/October 2020
A headshot of a man and the cover of "Life Is In the Transitions"

Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age
by Bruce Feiler
Penguin Press
366 pages


Bestselling author Bruce Feiler researched and wrote his newest book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, before COVID-19 emerged and upended the world. But its subject is spot on for this moment: a journey through the psychological skills necessary to adapt, reshape, and reinvent one’s life after loss, trauma, or, um, an unforeseen calamity such as a worldwide pandemic.

And so, as we swim through waves of havoc in the world right now, how lifesaving are the tips, tools, and case histories Feiler presents to help keep us psychologically afloat? It’s likely that therapists will be familiar with most of the coping strategies he outlines. At the same time, clients and other readers might benefit from using his book as a supplemental guide or motivational prompt for seeking out additional ideas on how to adapt to life’s unexpected transitions, including the new normal that’s continuing to unfold around us.

Feiler takes his title from the American psychologist William James (1842–1910), who asserted that the real stuff of life lies not in the smooth stretches of our years, but “in the transitions,” the traumas and challenges that spur us toward “the real firing-line of the battle,” the decision points that can compel us to turn in a different direction, redefine who we are, and reimagine what we want to do in the world.

Feiler himself embarked on this project after living through several life jolts of his own: his perennially optimistic father’s suicide attempt; his own bout with a rare cancer that was diagnosed shortly after the birth of his twin daughters; his near bankruptcy in the wake of the Great Recession. How to get through? As someone who saw himself as a storyteller, he turned to the field of narrative psychology and the work of Dan McAdams, now chair of the department of psychology at Northwestern University.

Thirty years ago, Feiler explains, McAdams “designed a process of interviewing people about their lives as a way to understand how they developed and refined their sense of self.” Their life stories—their narratives—revealed the themes, values, assumptions, and self-conceptions that had shaped them and led them to where they were, more often than not by way of a pivotal life crisis or an unexpected turning point, which featured prominently in these self-narratives.

Feiler perceived that such narratives could yield clues about the most (and least) effective ways people had found to weather the panoply of transitions, both expected and not, that life presents. Which is why he interviewed 225 individuals from all 50 states and of all ages, backgrounds, financial situations, spiritual beliefs, ethnicities, and gender identities. He hired a team of 12 researchers to sift through the interview transcripts in search of the most significant patterns or factors that defined, characterized, or affected how the interviewees had weathered their transitions.

In this way, the team identified 57 broad variables that could help account for the severity of the impact of a particular change, such as which part of the transition (beginning, middle, or end) was most difficult; the kinds of feedback received; which coping strategies and supports were available and helpful, or not; which emotions were most prevalent; and the reverberations of early loss or trauma. The team tagged examples of these factors within each case history, allowing Feiler to spotlight specific aspects of any given interview throughout his chapters, but leading him to hop all too quickly from one briefly summarized story to the next.

Feiler describes and presents much of his findings in numerous PowerPoint-like charts and graphs ready for the lecture circuit. After a while, I must admit, the barrage of metrics left me with a bit of data fatigue. Still, Feiler’s extensive data highlight an ongoing trend: the world’s increasingly quick pace of technological and societal upheaval, he says, means that most of us will be confronting ever more occasions to reinvent or reconfigure how we live. The “disrupters,” as he terms them, can range from the stressful but generally manageable (moving, switching jobs) to the sorrowfully difficult (marital and family troubles) to the unbearably tragic (a sudden death). Disruptions of any magnitude can occur as frequently as every year or two, with the most serious traumas, which he dubs “lifequakes,” arriving less frequently, only once every several years. And the pandemic—a once-in-a-century calamity—amplifies the fear, stress, uncertainty, and vulnerability of change all the more.

Feiler’s takeaway is that, even before COVID-19, all these factors had combined to make life today more fluid and unpredictable than ever. Whether in response to a “disruptor” or a “lifequake,” the stages and reactions he notes—from shock to acceptance and adaptation—are well known to therapists. Some of his analyses, too, struck me as less earth-shattering than he believes they are. In particular, he touts as headline news an idea that’s been circulating for some time: that, contrary to the life-span theory popularized by journalist Gail Sheehy in her still bestselling book Passages, our lives don’t proceed in a neat order of phases, with life-changing crises occurring at predictable ages (like midlife). Feiler’s interviews confirmed what some researchers—and most therapists—have been saying for decades: that life is flexible, complex, and rife with thunderbolts we can’t tell are in the offing. In addition, the periodic occurrence of what sociologists blandly call nonnormative events—such as a war, a natural disaster, or a worldwide pandemic—will surely rearrange, postpone, or cancel expected milestones and timetables of life. This point is especially relevant today, but Feiler is hardly the first to make it.

Yet in the same way that William James found that life is in the transitions, readers and professionals alike may find a sense of agency and comfort in the many coping strategies favored by Feiler’s interviewees. Surprisingly, in an era in which ever fewer people report being connected to organized religion, the use or creation of a ritual proved to be a particularly resonant—and successful—approach, whether for saying goodbye, marking a change, or embarking on something new. Feiler calculated that 78 percent of his sample turned to established traditions or invented commemorations of their own to mark the transition, such as getting a tattoo or throwing a party. The reason, Feiler suggests, is the need for something concrete in the midst of swirling change. “Rituals create demarcation,” he writes. “In moments of deluge, rituals provide containers. In periods of shape-shifting, rituals give shape.”

Similarly, 85 percent of interviewees held onto a memento, keepsake, or other symbolic object that had come to stand in for or remind them of an experience they’d lived through or someone they’d mourned. “They serve as vessels for many of the unruly emotions that bubble forth in moments of upheaval. Assigning these otherwise amorphous feelings to a specific object somehow makes them more contained and less threatening,” Feiler notes. We can take them off a shelf or out of a drawer when we need to—but then we can put them back, recognizing that they no longer need be the predominant symbol of our current lives.

Feiler also asked his interviewees to describe how they visualized their lives in terms of an actual shape. At first, I thought this was a gimmick, but the results surprised Feiler—and me as well. As you’d expect, some people said a line, an arc, or a circle, but many more came up with creative answers more emblematic of their specific journeys. A recovering alcoholic, for instance, saw his life as a bonsai tree because, he had found he liked “helping people who feel damaged and small discover their inner beauty and pride.” A professional singer whose career had been cut short by damage to his vocal cords became a Lutheran minister to fight for LGBT inclusion after his brother died of AIDS; he saw his life-shape as a cross. Such answers not only embodied their life stories thus far, but served as a personal compass for future transitions.

In other words, as narrative psychologist Dan McAdams explained to Feiler, how we shape our stories influences the meaning we both give and take from them. But we’re the ones who discover that meaning and endow our lives with it. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we’re far more vulnerable than we care to admit. But Feiler reminds us, with William James, that it’s the transitions that can give us the lessons in flexibility and adaptation that allow us to live more fully as we change.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.