Just yesterday, a friend of mine told me that she is feeling uneasy. She needed to leave her job, not because she was bored, and not exactly because she felt incompetent, though maybe that feeling was creeping up around the edges. But something else beckoned, some future she couldn’t quite see—less driven, more restful, more peaceful. I am pretty sure that my friend is on the verge of a major life transition.
Countless moments in our lives reflect these transitions – when we begin to crawl, to walk, to talk, when we first seek employment, leave our homes, fall in love, choose a spiritual path, lose our jobs, become infirm, become grandparents. These transitions test our mettle and enable—require—us to reinvent ourselves. How we move through these disruptive and exciting experiences profoundly influences the shape and quality of our life course.
We are taught that stability – of individual character, political opinion, physical attributes – is admirable and desirable, and to be sure, attainable, yet change — small and profound – is constant and inevitable, defining our lives at least as powerfully.
Erik Erikson, a preeminent human development theorist of the 20th century, charted a developmental course that identified eight stages – framed as “choices” – throughout the lifespan. The final stage pits “generativity” against “stagnation.” He emphasized the capacity of older people to guide younger people, what some current commentators call giving back and playing it forward, as we decrease our self care and self promotion in the service of future generations. When we fail to do so, we can turn inward, stagnate, and grow bitter about being displaced, unimportant, alone.
Let me fill out the Eriksonian canvas for a moment. During what some people call the “third chapter” of life, there are numbers of disruptive experiences. There’s the empty nest, for instance, a time of loss and grief for some, of joy in the freedom it brings for others—and combinations of both for most of us. There’s retirement, which, again, thrills some of us and devastates others, particularly those whose whole identity seems to have been wrapped up with their professional reputation and community. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, there’s the transition from aging into old age, that time when many of us are more defined by the diminishment of our capacities and the nearness of death, but also feels like clarity and wisdom.
Developmental psychology has come a long way since Erikson’s pioneering work. We no longer think about universal developmental pathways — that people march, lock step, through certain preordained stages. As it turns out, our development is profoundly influenced by innate biological and neurological qualities, by the families, communities, and historical eras in which we live. This shift shows us to be more unique than Erikson and his contemporaries believed but, because we are influenced by similar social and economic currents, also more predictable. The Post-World War II and the Baby Boomer generation, for instance, share certain characteristics.
In a future essay, I’ll be taking us deeper into developmental theory and how it helps us understand ourselves. Today, though, I focus on the transitional periods, themselves. Think of the shift from infancy to early childhood, from adolescence to early adulthood, from early adulthood to midlife, from midlife to old age. In other words, I’m not interested in the stages but how we navigate from one to another.
As a heuristic devise–to make the transition period come to life–I’m proposing a five phase process. I don’t think the five phase progression is invariable or inevitable but I do hope that this portrait makes the process more vivid and accessible to you and gets you thinking about your own transitions.
It begins with the sense that there is something off kilter about the present, something inhibiting, uncomfortable. There’s an often incoherent, hard-to-articulate, sometimes nerve-wracking, often exhilarating need to do something new. Change jobs, retire, move to a new location, return to sculpture—the possibilities are almost endless. For some, the feeling arrives suddenly, as for example, after a spouse gets sick or dies, or when we retire, though even in these instances, we may have had some premonition that change was near. For others, the change creeps up on us gradually, quietly. We are a little bored with our job—not very but enough to notice. We no longer feel a part of our work community—everyone is younger and seems more in tune with each other.
Let’s call the first phase At the Brink. Here there is confusion, consternation, fear, but also yearning, desire, and excitement about the possibilities ahead, although we might only just sense them. Even clearly anticipated and well planned transitions—retirement, moving, empty nests—are filled with this strange combination of feelings. Let me illustrate how the combination of feelings sometimes struggle with one another: Many a person sets off on a new course, building friendship networks, skills and optimism, for example, until they swim far from their accustomed shore but not yet close to the new shore, what we could call a settled adaptation to the transition. They grow frightened, as if they might drown.
Often, the most difficult part of any transition is Letting Go. Letting go of the centrality of parenting, professional accomplishments and identity, the structure of our old lives. A certain amount of grief and mourning is key., since it seems important to see clearly our losses in order to free ourselves to move forward.
To manage the Brink’s uncertainty, we bring to bear the resources that guided our prior lives. These include coping skills built through many developmental transitions and the narratives of our lives, the stories we tell about ourselves. Altogether, these stories provide our identity. “My life was built on hard work … I’m a family man … I take some chances but mostly I’m cautious… “ In retirement, for example, I can still work hard—maybe in my garden, rediscovering my artistic voice, volunteering at nonprofits. The stories are reassuring, an anchor in the storm, but they aren’t completely satisfying because they don’t entirely fit our new circumstances. They need to be revised. They need to announce: This is who I am now. Writing the stories that make us feel whole and that help us fit in our culture, is one of the most important of all human skills. Revising our Story, then, is the third phase of successful transitions.
We needn’t reject the person we have been, but we do need to accept that some of that is in the past and find ways to affirm the person we are becoming. The narrative we build draws from past, present, and (anticipated) future. It might go something like this: “During those long years of child-rearing, I put off my professional life, I tamped down some of my passions. The new activity isn’t as new to me as it might seem to others; it’s the fulfillment of drives and dreams I’ve long held.” To continue: “I always saw myself as a musician, a mentor, a crafts person. Now I can play out that side of myself.”
There’s more than a story in the transition. There is activity. As your new life begins to reorder itself, new activities emerge, bump up against the old, take hold. New patterns of behavior begin to find a rhythm of their own: for instance, practicing the piano each morning after meditation, followed by a walk, then time with a local nonprofit, helping children learn to read. In effect, you practice the new activities and the rhythm of activities as they fit together. As we know, practice provides skill and comfort. With time, the new rhythm seems natural and satisfying. Let’s call this the phase of Practice.
Finally, we need to bring together past and present, old skills and new, old narratives and new ones. There are so many threads to reweave. We recognize our old selves and yet we are different. We are better at some things even as some of our capacities decline. This is the phase of Reintegration.
The renewed coherence that comes with Reintegration is liberating. Imagine the liberation when you have practiced a tennis shot or the scales on a piano to the point where they are natural. You don’t need to think about them. They seem to play themselves. You are free to pay fuller attention to the music or the tennis game. In that moment, you pass through the developmental transition, and now, paradoxically, you can be yourself once again.