How To Cope With Big Life Changes — And Living A ‘Nonlinear’ Life

windy road

Bruce Feiler on advice from his new book ‘Life Is In the Transitions’

Bruce Feiler lived a pretty “linear” life…until it was upended by a series of tragedies. He now lives by a new maxim, also the title of his new book: Life Is In the Transitions. For the book, he crossed all fifty states, talking to people who have gone through profound life changes — some by choice, some not. And from those interviews, he culled advice for anyone going through anything similar.

As the pandemic upturns many peoples’ worlds, Bruce offers advice on coping with job loss, and other major life changes. And he weighs in on how to handle these transitions as they happen all at once.

Wake-Up Call: Life Is In the Transitions is all about navigating life transitions, meaning, and purpose. Can you tell us briefly what inspired you to write this book and set you on this five-year journey?

Bruce Feiler: I had a back-to-back set of hugely disruptive life experiences. Before those, I had what you might call a kind of a linear life. I discovered what I wanted to do early in my life. I had some success, got married, and had children. But in my forties, I just was walloped by life. First, I was diagnosed with a rare aggressive life-threatening cancer. Then I almost went bankrupt in the Great Recession. And then, my father, who suffers from Parkinson’s, got very depressed and tried to kill himself, six times in 12 weeks. So suddenly my very stable life was just really thrown off course.

But I’m the storytelling guy. And I got very interested in how, when our lives get upturned, we have to rethink and rewrite the story of our lives. And so I set out on this journey where I crisscrossed the country, collecting what became hundreds of life stories from Americans of all ages, all walks of life, in all 50 States. I talked to people who lost homes or children, changed careers or religions, got out of bad marriages, got sober. And with a team of 12 people, I combed through those stories for a year, trying to find takeaways and tips to help any of us when we go through disruptive life experiences.

Wake-Up Call: Can you tell me one of the most memorable stories you came across? What is one of the biggest takeaways that you have from all of your research?

One of my favorite stories was a woman named Christy Moore, who hated school when she was younger, and grew up in Savannah, Georgia. She got pregnant when she was 16, dropped out of school, had three children in the next eight years, worked in fast food, and hit a wall because her husband got sick and they couldn’t afford insurance. Come Monday, she takes a toddler to the local library. She’s pregnant. She reaches over and grabs the first book she can find. It’s Wuthering Heights. She has to read it twice to understand it and decides she’s going to go back to school. She gets an undergraduate degree in health, then a Master’s Degree, and then a Ph.D. She went from GED to Ph.D., and now she helps nontraditional students get an education. I love that story because we think our lives are going to be linear. But in fact, we have nonlinear lives. We all get kind of buffeted at least three to five times in our lives, by these huge disruptive experiences. I call them life quakes. And we have to adjust our lives in response.

I talked to people who got out of cults, who got out of hate groups, who lost their legs, who lost children, who just transformed themselves in ways that are so inspiring. You or someone you know, is going through a life quake right now. My book is designed to help people when they get stuck. So I’d say the biggest takeaway that I have is that life transitions are a choice. The life quake that happens to you, it may be voluntary. You may choose to get married. You may choose to change religions. You may choose to change jobs. Or it may be involuntary. Your spouse cheats on you, you get fired, you get hit by a pandemic. So life quake may be voluntary or involuntary, but the life transition is voluntary. You have to choose to go through the process of trying to grow and change as a result of the experience.

You mentioned earlier about life kind of hitting you. And so many of us feel like that right now. We’re experiencing huge changes, whether it’s losing a loved one, not being able to see our families or changes with our jobs or housing. So what advice would you have for someone who’s going through so many transitions at the same time?

The advice that I have is that transitions work. And that there’s a process we can go through to help us turn a period of chaos and upheaval into one of growth and renewal.

Transitions involve three stages. There’s the long goodbye where we have to bid farewell to the person and the life that’s left behind. Then there’s the messy middle, where you shed certain habits and you build new ones. And then there’s the new beginning where you unveil your new self to the world. Don’t try to push too quickly into the new beginning. It’s okay to feel stuck. It’s okay to mourn the past. In fact, I’d even say it’s necessary.

People tend to use rituals to kind of officially close the door on that old past. They have farewell parties. They get a tattoo, or they write a letter to a friend or a loved one that may be gone. Don’t try to rush too quickly into the new, remember to accept and say goodbye to the past.

Those are wise words. And so we know that you’re hunkered down in Brooklyn right now. How are you holding up amid all of this? You’re in a bit of a transition yourself. You went from writing this book to now, this book is out in the world.

I was a wounded, scared, fearful person when I went into this process, and meeting the people that I met filled me with hope and a sense of possibility. And that’s what I really think can happen to you. If you come on this journey, if you meet the people that I’ve met, they’re going to inspire you to go through the changes that you know you want, you know you need, but you don’t know how. Meeting these people is going to give you concrete steps that you can take to get yourself through whatever you’re dealing with right now.

But my last question for you is, you know, you spent five years on this and all of your books seem to be these wonderful, huge projects. So what’s next for you?

I think that the emotional, maybe bittersweet reality of publishing a book. It’s a life transition, right? The short answer is I’m developing this as a television series. So I’m hoping that that will get off the ground.

For the first time in my life, having met so many people who went through huge, enormous life transitions, some much more mind-blowing than I have ever experienced before, I can honestly say I don’t know what’s coming next. And I’m okay with that because I feel I’ve got the tools to handle whatever it will be.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium.