This week, several family members headed to the Salt Lake City International Airport, where we masked up and stood outside the elevator in the parking garage, waiting to welcome home our son and brother returning from a Latter-day Saint mission in Hawaii. (Hard life, I know.)
After we returned home and he was officially released, he was (and is) a little shell-shocked. He asked if he could go on a drive with a friend. I reminded him he was no longer a missionary and that as an adult, he didn’t have to ask my permission. Later in the day, he asked if he could turn on his phone and access Facebook. Again, I reminded him he did not have to follow missionary rules.
It’s a transition from one lifestyle and focus to another and, while it can seem jarring initially, I know it will only be a matter of a couple of weeks before he adjusts to a new normal.
While I chuckle at his deer-in-the-headlights moments, this life transition is not an uncommon one. In fact, life is full of transitions, some chosen, some not and some so big author Bruce Feiler calls them “lifequakes.”
Already a consummate storyteller, Feiler became a committed story-gatherer when his father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and tried to kill himself six times in the next 12 weeks. Feiler, who already knew the power of story and its relationship to resilience, began sending his dad questions. His first was simply “What was your favorite toy as a child?”
Week after week, as his dad answered questions, he rediscovered his will to live — and inspired his son Bruce to start the “Life Story Project.” Bruce Feiler gathered 225 life stories from all 50 states, including from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack, and wrote “Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.”
As he began to unpack those stories and “code” them, he discovered that life’s transitions were not rare. In fact, they were so common that he suggests that we will experience some sort of life transition an average of every 12 to 18 months. Some were voluntary, like losing weight or getting married, and some were involuntary, like being fired from a job. Some were personal, like parenting a child with special needs and some were collective, like living through a natural disaster (say wildfires or a pandemic).
Those really big ones? The lifequakes? Those come along less often but we can expect, on average, to experience between three and five during our lifetimes — and, as Feiler found, getting our feet back under us after a major disruption can take years.
Feiler describes three phases which his interviewees described as they navigated their life transitions. The first is the “the long goodbye,” where you (eventually) bid farewell to the old you, “the messy middle,” where you navigate the “what now?!” part and “the new beginning,” when you are ready to “unveil” the new you.
At the end of Feiler’s book, he lists the five lessons he has learned about life’s transitions. One, they are becoming more plentiful. Two, they are nonlinear, just like life. Three, they take longer than you think they will. Four, they are “autobiographical occasions,” meaning they offer us the opportunity to “revisit, revise and ultimately restart our internal autobiographies.” And fifth, transitions are essential to life. Rather than see them as hostile, Feiler writes, we can rebrand them as fertile territory, helping us to see with new eyes and become a better version of ourselves.
As Feiler explains, the stories we tell about life’s transitions, give us “purpose, focus and cause.” We all share the experience of going through transitions. Sharing the stories of our journey binds us to others going through their own similar journeys. Being bound together in supportive, empathetic ways is something the world could use a little more of.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.