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How to say goodbye

Americans are great at celebrating new beginnings. But in this economy, we need a new language for marking exits


Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
June 10, 2012 8:00PM (UTC)

We are taught to start our stories at the beginning. We open with “once upon a time,” hoping to capture the nascent moment when everything came to be. But there are few lessons — in our culture, in our schooling, in our socialization — in how to exit well. Our culture applauds the spirit, gumption and promise of beginnings. We admire the entry -- the moment when people launch themselves into something new, plan and execute a new project, embark on important work, get married, take an adventure. Our habit is to tilt toward the future, perpetually poised for the next move, the strategic opportunity.

By contrast, our exits are often ignored or invisible. They seem to represent the negative spaces in our life narratives. There is little appreciation or applause when we decide (or it is decided for us) that it is time to move on. We often slink away in the night hoping that no one will notice; that the darkness will make the departure disappear. If the entry recalls a straight and erect posture, a person who is strong and determined; then we imagine a person stooped, weakened, and despairing as he makes his exit.

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This cultural regard of exit is particularly troublesome in a society where leave-takings are the norm, where, for example, more than half of the marriages end in divorce forcing tortured exits, publicly exposed and privately endured. Tens of thousands of immigrants flood into our country each day, exiting the place where their lives and families have been rooted, leaving the continuity and familiarity of their pasts, rupturing their cultural traditions and practices. Demographers predict that our young adults, now in their 20s, will likely have 10 careers — not just 10  jobs — and it will be crucial that they learn not just the art of beginning anew, but also how to navigate good exits. Indeed, in these tough economic times, the agony of exits seems to be the dominant narrative; everyone knows someone — in her family or among her close friends — who has lost her job, someone who is experiencing the painful assault of forced unemployment. The depleted job market forces young college graduates to move back home under their parents’ roofs, postponing the exits that were long planned, and producing a developmental condition that psychologists have begun to describe — pejoratively — as a “failure to launch.” And, of course, there is the inevitable and ultimate exit of death that begs for more clear-eyed and respectful attention, more beautiful rituals, and more cultural honoring.

Not only has the American geographic and sociological map been defined by exits — chosen and forced — it is also true that exiting is a central marker and lever in our individual developmental journeys. We move across the life cycle rebalancing the contrary weights propelling us forward and pulling us back; a tug of war between progression and regression where exiting anticipates growth and progress. Visual reminders of exit surround us each day of our lives; guiding our moves, anticipating our turns, flashing directions to us. Glowing white letters on green metal signs along the highway, marking distance, time, effort, belonging.

Exits, therefore, are ubiquitous; marking the physical landscapes we inhabit, embedded in our language and metaphors, embroidered into the historical narrative of our country, braided into the developmental sequence and arc of our individual development, shaped by the contemporary scene of our economic crisis and global mobility; and laced into the intergenerational tensions and discourses in our families and communities. Perhaps it is the very ordinariness, familiarity, and ubiquity of our experiences of exit that make them invisible to us.  And perhaps it is our overvaluing of the launch, the promise of entry, and the hopefulness of beginning, which render our exits ignoble by contrast.

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Another interesting twist to the paradoxical ubiquity and invisibility of exits — big and small — is the way in which technology has reshaped our sense of connectedness and community, our very identity; the ways in which our global access to one another through cyberspace channels has changed the pace and texture of our discourses and redrawn the boundaries between our public and private lives, remapped the edges of intimacy, even redefined the very meaning of friendship. In this fast emerging context of technological advancement, beginnings and endings take on a different pace and meaning, exits are less clearly drawn, and entanglements seem easier to undo but harder to escape. The boundaries of exit become attenuated and eroded; yet another sign of their invisibility.

Why is all of this so important? Why do we need to wrest our exits from the shadows of inattention and guilt? Why must we readjust our cultural lens in order to see and compose the exits in our lives? Because, I believe, that our preoccupation with beginnings reveals only half the story; offering a partial and distorted view of the layers and trajectories of our growth and development; exaggerating the power and potential of our launches while neglecting the undertows of over-reaching. We might chart and judge our journeys very differently if we looked through the prism of our exits; a prism that would reveal the interplay of reflection and propulsion, hindsight and generativity that come with navigating our endings well.

The wisdom and insights I gathered from listening to dozens of people tell their stories of exit — some in the midst of composing them, others anticipating their departures, still others looking back over long years; revisiting the ancient narratives that had changed their lives — point to a radical reframing of the meaning and worthiness of exits, moving exits from the shadows to the light, from the invisible to the visible. In order for exits to be productive and expansive, we must give them our full attention, and grapple with the range of emotions they stir up in us; the often paradoxical sensations of loss and liberation, grief and jubilation, and pain and beauty that accompany our departures from our relationships, families, institutions, and communities; from our former identities. And the daily practice of navigating the small exits that punctuate our days — a hug at the door, a lullaby at bedtime, a thank you as you leave the office — helps us design and enact the grander send-offs with intentionality and care. The micro and the macro seem to be inextricably linked, the former informing and heralding the latter.

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Another paradox: The exit signs are bold and blurred; clear and confusing. On the one hand, people can recall the exact moment  —in bold relief, the blood red exit sign in a darkened movie theater — when they decided to leave, when they felt that they no longer had a choice, when all the forces and sensations came together in a perfect storm and they said to themselves, “I’m out of here.” On the other hand, those who take leave, see the messiness and ambivalence of their departures through their rear view mirrors; the long process of retreat that came well before the marked moment of announced leaving and the many aftershocks of exiting that followed. Exits feel both abrupt and final — a leap of faith, a moment of reckless abandon — and gnawingly cautious and iterative. Those who exit must be ready to ride out these paradoxical sensations.

Finally, life defining exits are enhanced through ritual — the ceremonial moments that hold our conflicting emotions, offer us support and witness, give us a chance to stand up and be counted, and bond with community. Rituals become a space for storytelling, imagining and creating choices that might have been unimaginable before. Creating rites and rituals of exit in our families, in our communities, and in our organizations must become a cultural — as well as a personal and institutional — agenda; allowing people to honor endings in a way that is substantive and inspirational, creative and collective, structured and improvisational, that speaks to the heart and to the head and allows people to walk away with their heads held high rather than slink off in the night. We must leave in order to begin.

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Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University and the author of "EXIT: The Endings That Set Us Free" (June 2012, Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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