Life is in the Transitions (Part 2).

July 18, 2020

Life is in the Transitions (Part 2).

May 29, 2023

This is the second day of our interview with New York Times bestselling author Bruce Feiler’s whose new book just launched this week. The premise of “mastering change” is core to our MEA philosophy and a fundamental skill that Bruce articulates in the book. Bruce, you believe “lifequakes” shake us enough to ask the question, “What is it that gives me meaning and how does that influence the story of my life?” How has that question influenced you?

Bruce: Love that use of shake! First, I think we overlook how critical rewriting our story in times of crisis is. Lifequakes are autobiographical occasions, in that they oblige us to reimagine who we are and modify our life stories. But the thing about our life stories is that, like all stories, they don’t have inherent meaning. We have to give them their meaning. As you know, I spend a lot of time in my book talking about what I call the ABCs of Meaning--Agency, Belonging, and Cause.

As for me, getting married was an autobiographical occasion, as was having identical twins and later cancer as a young dad; my father was clearly having an autobiographical occasion when he lost the ability to work, walk, and bathe. Though I didn’t understand the role of meaning when I was going through these lifequakes (or helping my dad), what I now realize is that we play a bigger role in our own recovery than I would have thought. Next time I go through one, I’m going to do what the most balanced people I met did: Begin a personal project in each of the three ABCs--one that gives me a sense of agency, one that connects me to others, one that gives me a higher sense of cause.

Chip: Why do you think “midlife crisis” is a myth? Don’t you think that some of the life disruptions people experience - job irrelevance, menopause, empty nest syndrome - are specific to the middle of one’s adult life? And, don’t you think the U-curve of happiness research shows that there’s a reduced life satisfaction between approximately ages 45-50 across almost all cultures?

Bruce: Oof, this is a whole week at Modern Elder Academy! My quick answer: The idea of the “midlife crisis,” as first articulated by Elliott Jacques sixty years ago was the people in their mid-30s go through a depressive period brought on by first contemplating their mortality that includes concern over their health, compulsive vanity, promiscuity, and religious awakening. Jacques didn’t do any research; he just read a bunch of biographies of famous men. He didn’t include women, he said, because menopause “obscured” their midlife transitions. No wonder his audience scoffed at his theory!

When Gail Sheehy popularized the idea in the 70s, based primarily on some very iffy research by Dan Levinson at Yale (he interviewed only 40 people, and again only men) she said the midlife crisis must start in the 40th year and will end at 45 ½. Now that number has supposedly shifted later. All this slipperiness hints at a larger problem: younger people think middle age starts in their 30s; older people think it starts in their 50s. Like being middle class, everyone is middle aged these days!

The U-curve is something different entirely. It finds that people in the brunt of raising children, trying to build their careers, struggling to build nest eggs, and beginning to care for aging parents experience a dip in happiness. This happiness dip has nothing to do with contemplating mortality, the research shows; it has to do with demands on your time. But happiness is a limited metric; ask them if their lives have meaning and the numbers tell a different story. Childrearing, for example, is hard but it’s profoundly meaningful.

What I’m talking about is yet another phenomenon. It’s that our lives are buffeted and redirected by massive changes at certain points—and not just once, but three to five times in our lives. These could be all the things Jacques talked about--medical issues, career boredom, change in sexual practices—but also a lot of ones he ignored—menopause(!), divorce, social movements like #MeToo or #BlackLiveMatter, or external events like a tornado, a financial crisis, a downsizing, or a pandemic.

I bring abundant research to show that these happen whenever. That’s why I call it “the whenever life crisis.” Some people are born into crisis, if, say, their parents are getting divorced. Some people lose a parent or get sexually abused in high school. If you’re an addict and get sober in your 20s, that will be a defining experience in your life. Same with having a special needs child in your 30s; losing your job in your 40s; becoming an empty nester in your 50s; getting a chronic illness in your 60s; downsizing in your 70s.

I’m not saying these events don’t happen between 45 and 50; just that they don’t necessarily happen then and don’t solely happen then. It is entirely too limiting—as well as hurtful, misleading, and sometimes even dangerous—to say these happen exclusively, or even primarily, in a five-year span in our late 40s. They happen across our lives, and multiple times in our lives.

The bottom line: Our lives are nonlinear, and that gives us all a remarkable power to live them as we choose. What I hope to do in Life Is in the Transitions is to make that a little easier. And to be clear, these are not tools that I made up; they’re ones I learned from hundreds of people who are doing them already.

Chip: Your book is full of themes we explore at MEA: ritualizing transition, shifting mindset, editing what no longer serves, sharing wisdom...the list goes on. When do we get you down to Baja to teach?

Bruce: When all get through this collective lifequake and can be together again!

Part 1 of this interview can be found here.

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