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Everyone agrees we’re in a massive transition, but few agree on the best way to navigate it. Every Wednesday at The Nonlinear Life we focus on life transitions. Specifically, how to turn this period of uncertainty and stress into one of growth and renewal.
A small confession: In the 1980s, when I began writing my first book, a memoir of my time spent teaching in Japan, I quickly stumbled upon a skill I did not have. For the life of me, I could not write analogies. Using chopsticks is like…what exactly? Raw horse tastes like…hmmm? Standing in front of a roomful of people in a Japanese-sized kimono that barely covers my crotch is akin to…(help!)?
Perhaps it reveals more about me than I’d like, but the way I tackled the problem was that whenever I reached a sentence that screamed out for an analogy (or simile, or whatever the proper word is), I would force myself to sit at my desk and write down three or four options until I settled on one that I liked.
Today, more than three decades later, I no longer have to perform that specific exercise, but I still haven’t lost the habit. A few years ago, it came in handy.
As I was doing life story interviews for my newest book, one curious, undeniable pattern emerged: Problems tended to clump in people’s lives. Destabilizing events seem to happen one on top of the other, thus creating even more instability. Just when you get fired, your mother-in-law gets cancer; no sooner do you question your faith than your car gets totaled and suddenly your daughter is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. To my knowledge, no scholar has written about this issue in the extensive literature devoted to confronting change.
But what should I call this particular phenomenon? For weeks I came up with options that I didn’t like—a clump, a confluence, a cluster, a knot. Then one day I saw a clip of an old movie in which one wobbly Model T crashed into another, then another car careened into the wreckage, then another. That’s exactly what it feels like! I thought.
It’s a pileup.
As in the movies, there are two-car pileups: Amy Cunningham’s grief over her father’s death led her to quit journalism and become a mortician. Jan Boyer and his wife were fighting so much over how to treat their teen daughter’s drug and alcohol addiction that it led to the end of their marriage.
There are three-car pileups: Amber Alexander lost her boyfriend in a car wreck, her grandfather to a stroke, and her aunt in an overdose, all within six months. Bob Hall was in his late forties and drawing comic strips in New York when his marriage failed, he moved home to Nebraska and learned he was adopted.
There are even four and five-car pileups: Khaliqa Baqi, a hospice chaplain in Oregon, went through menopause, got divorced, returned to school, and started a new job—all within a few years. Erik Smith, a young minister in Virginia, preached his mother’s funeral, his father’s funeral, left the church to become a special-needs teacher, struggled with suicidal ideation, got addicted to painkillers, and lost sixty pounds—all within two years.
But what exactly causes these situations?
Some of these concurrences are accidental. The diagnosis, the death, the tornado just happened to occur at a moment of vulnerability. But more, I’ve come to believe, are connected. It’s as if our immune system becomes compromised by one disruptor so that when another one, two, or three come along, our entire identity gets the flu.
Sometimes we even initiate the pileup ourselves. I interviewed a man in a loveless, sexless marriage for a dozen years when he lost his job. He met a woman at a conference a month later and began what he described as a “mad affair.” “I had this thought of Why not blow it all up at once?” His marriage finally ended, and within a few years, he was in a healthier one.
We’re all in a massive pileup these days. You’ve heard heart attacks referred to as widow-makers? The pandemic has been a massive pileup-maker. For many of us, the sensation of feeling overwhelmed has had at least one advantage. Just being in a state of flux has made us more willing to tackle changes we've been putting off forever. OK, I'll finally make that move, or quit that job, or take that leap I've been meaning to take forever.
The point is: Pileups are common, and like all lifequakes, they offer just as many opportunities for growth as they do for misery. It’s almost as if going through a pileup is just like…
Dang, can’t come up with a good analogy.
You might enjoy reading these posts:
Week 1 in this series: Farewell to the Linear Life
Or, you can contact me directly.