Marking The Moment With A Meaningful 'Exit'

Exits are ubiquitous; grand or modest, we've all left something, from resigning from a job to waving goodbye to a friend. In Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot explores goodbyes through the stories of people in transition. (Originally broadcast June 11, 2012.)

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. From saying goodbye to the kids in the morning to leaving a job after 25 years to the end of life, exits are universal. Long or short, big or small, we've all left home or ended friendships or marriages.

In a book entitled "Exit," sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot explores these endings through the stories of people in transition and asks whether exits are as clean and binary as they might first appear or whether they're messier and more complicated. She also wonders whether our small endings - the goodbyes we practice every day - can help us find grace and dignity in the bigger farewells.

Please note this is a rebroadcast. We're not going to be able to take any new calls today. Later in the program, medical emergencies at 40,000 feet. But first Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Her book is "Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free." And she joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION again.

SARA LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Delighted to be here.

CONAN: And you write in the introduction to your book that some of those big exits, the moments you decided I am finally out of here, big moments in your life, these are some of the most vivid memories that you have.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right. I think all of us who are facing these life-altering moments of leaving have an experience of these things being almost in Technicolor, like old Polaroid photographs. They're vivid. They're clear. It is a moment when, finally, suddenly, we take the leap of faith. Everything comes together. It's no longer opaque, no longer rationalizing. Everything's clear. We say: I'm out of here. I'm done. I'm through.

CONAN: Yet you say they're also accompanied by guilt and remorse.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, mostly the ways in which our culture kind of sees exits and sees departures. They're often visualized as negative spaces in our lives, as moments of retreat, as next to failure. And so there are not that many ways in which we have ritualized or supported or brought into community this sort of sense that it's OK to leave.

CONAN: But there have to be almost two kinds. There is some leavings that are highly ritualized - graduating from high school, for example. It's even called commencement.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right, right, exactly.

CONAN: It's not called exit. And then there are those that are less structured, you know, breaking off a friendship.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes. I think that all of the people who I spoke to - and I spoke to four dozen people about their exit narratives and stories - said one thing in common, and that was that there was this moment, this vivid moment, in which you say I'm done. I'm through. But there's also a much more messy, iterative process in which, you know, you realize that you've exiting for a long time.

And then once you've decided to exit and leave, you are still, in some ways, musing about it or worrying about it. So it's not as clean or as binary as most people think of exits.

CONAN: There's a sociologist you talk to in the book, Shin Wang, who's going on a project to talk with Mexican mothers in St. Louis. And you write that, in fact, she came to the realization that she was thinking about - she's trained to go into the field and getting access, the start, the incredibly important part - because, obviously, you can't have a project if you can't get access to people to tell them your stories, a little like journalism. But the fact of the matter is, from the very start, she was thinking about: And how do I leave?

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, she's an anthropologist, right? And most of us, including me - I mean, when I was trained as a sociologist, moving out into the field, we were so focused on the entry, on gaining access, on figuring out a way to get people's permission to hear their stories and to tell their stories, we didn't think at all about saying goodbye and the responsibilities of saying goodbye and the sort of moral and ethical code, or even what the sort of scientific and empirical responsibilities were around authenticity or validity in saying goodbye.

And so she - but she realized once we began to talk that as soon as she went there and met the first Mexican-American mother and began to hear this woman's stories, and this woman was immediately sort of trusting of her, that she was feeling the heaviness of leaving, that even in the very beginning, she was worried about how she was going to say goodbye.

CONAN: And came up with, I thought, a pretty elegant solution.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right. She really realized that - she was there for four years. And she decided to show a copy of her work, her documents of their interviews, to the women - and remember that documentation for them must have been incredibly important for this particular group of mothers - and let them read their stories.

She also began to have conversations that were much less formal where she revealed parts of herself, so that it became a more symmetric relationship. And so when she said goodbye, they knew more about her than they'd known before, and she knew something about them.

CONAN: We're talking with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the author most recently of "Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free." We'd like to hear from you about exits and how they may have surprised you in your life, some of those vivid moments we've been describing. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's start with - let's start with Tunde(ph), Tunde with us from Phoenix, if I can push the button properly. We have a new piece of electronics here in the studio, and I'm having difficulties with it. Hold on. Give me just a second. There we go. No, there we go. Tunde, there you are. I apologize.

TUNDE: No worries, sir.

CONAN: Oh, well, thank you.

TUNDE: Yeah, I just wanted to say I've always been - I've never been a rude person, but I've always, like, kind of downplayed the formality of hello and goodbye, good morning, what have you. And my brother passed, it's been over 10 years, but I just recall the last time seeing him.

We had gone out for pizza, and he said goodbye to me, and I was watching TV or playing a video game at the time. I didn't kind of - I didn't look up to really see him or acknowledge him. I said goodbye verbally, but I never made that eye contact that last time.

And that's always stayed with me, and it's always kind of altered, like, subsequently altered the way I kind of view the hello and goodbye and the formality of it. I just wanted to share.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yeah, that's actually - thank you very much. That's a lovely story, and it makes the connection, too, between the sort of small, ordinary, everyday goodbyes and how important it is to connect with those and to almost ritualize those because I do think that paying attention to them, naming them, reframing them as important has a lot to do with the larger goodbyes.

And in that case, of course, the small goodbye became a very, very large goodbye, momentous goodbye.

CONAN: And the feelings that you still have about it, Tunde, that suggests that this has preyed on your mind, in a way.

TUNDE: Yeah, it has. I think about it at least once a month. Subsequently, he actually committed suicide after. And then when they wheeled him away in the hospital that last time, I reflected on to the last time I didn't say - didn't make that eye contact.

And so it's - I don't know. It's always just - it was always a defining moment in my life, you know, the whole lack of saying goodbye appropriately and acknowledging him, looking him in the eyes. It just always affected me, yeah.

CONAN: Well, thanks for sharing your story.

TUNDE: Thank you.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think that one of the things that I discovered through doing this research is that exits can become very defining moments, that in our society, we tend to be so focused on beginnings, so focused on launchings, so tilted toward the future that we don't take advantage of those very important moments of paying attention to our departures.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - if we can get this to work - Denise(ph), Denise is with us from Toledo.

DENISE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Thank you. Operator error. There's nothing wrong with this technology, by the way. I'm just a klutz. So Denise, go ahead, please.

DENISE: Well, I had an unfortunate experience of losing a job in very questionable circumstances. And I worked in a small group of people. There were about 20 of us in this program. And when I lost this job, I just remember the isolation of feeling so alone.

And there were maybe one or two people that reached out, out of a group of 20 people. I just remember feeling just the isolation, and that really - that's really made an impression on me. And, you know, if I'm ever in a situation where someone else experiences that, I don't want someone to feel what I felt because it was just a horrible feeling. And I'm now getting back on my feet, but it was just a horrible experience.

CONAN: So, obviously, this was not your decision to leave the job.

DENISE: No, it was not. But still, it was - it came as a shock, and like I said, there was controversy behind it. But still, there's - no one really stepped - well, I can't say no one. But for the number of people, it was just kind of like everybody else just kind of woke up and moved on except for these choice few people who really went to bat for me.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think, you know, that's not uncommon, that exits that are either forced exits that are not your choice or exits that don't feel as if they allow for completion, for appreciation, for reflection, make people feel as if they are very, very alone.

And one of the things that people talked about in this - in my own work was the need to create some kinds of rites and rituals, some kinds of ceremonies that allow us to recognize the often very paradoxical sensations of leaving: the loss of it and the liberation of it, whether it's forced or whether it's chosen.

CONAN: I just have to say, one of the stories you tell in the book is a woman who had a - founded a company and was its guiding spirit for 25 years, decided to leave, and there were these ceremonies, the party, the handover, the mentoring afterwards, and yet she still felt terrible.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes. She still felt isolated and still felt as if she was thrown to the curb and marginalized. So this was - she staged this exit. She wanted this. She felt as if the company needed new leadership, and she needed a new life. But despite that, her decision left her feeling privately, in her interior, desperately alone and isolated. And it took - and it was still taking a while when I was speaking to her for her not to feel bereft.

As a matter of fact, it seemed to land in her body, this sense of isolation and loneliness. She got Graves disease, which she felt was a perfect metaphor for how she was feeling.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, Denise.

DENISE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about goodbyes. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's book is titled "Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free." Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot about our memorable goodbyes. It's the subject of her new book, "Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free." At some point, all of us stepped out that front door and left home for the day or for a lifetime.

The concept of home plays out in any number of ways in the book. You can read more about some of those meanings of home in an excerpt from our website. That's at npr.org.

And I wanted to read a couple of emails. This is from Mike(ph) in Portland: I left Detroit in 1978 and moved to Portland, Oregon. I was terrified and knew that my family could talk me out of it. So I didn't tell a soul and drove to Portland, a place where I didn't know a soul and I'd never visited. It was the best thing I did, and I have never even for a second regretted it.

And you write a lot in the book about how exits are in fact openings.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, one of the things that I think is so important is that we attend to exits so that we recognize the ways in which they can propel us forward. They are - you know, in order to get to the beginning, we need to leave. And so I'm not surprised by this story at all, that he found a way to exit in this kind of binary way that we talked about before, with clarity and with surety.

He knew what would stop him, and he decided not to give in to that, and he moved forward and quite happily, and fortunately it led him to a new beginning.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Samantha(ph), Samantha with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

SAMANTHA: Hi.

CONAN: Miracle, it worked; go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMANTHA: OK, mine is kind of a cautionary thing. My mother and my grandmother both passed away suddenly. And when I was younger and questioning death and, you know, afraid of it, or at least I was as a child, you know, and brought it up with them, they both told me - it was something I think they were proud of, you know, saying was that, you know, we'll dance at your wedding. We'll be there.

You know, so it's not something you have to worry about. You know, that's way off. And it turned out it wasn't, you know. And that's a difficult thing, you know, and it's surprising. And while, you know, I'm an adult now, and I understand that that's not - you know, that that's something that they said to comfort me, it's still, oddly enough, something that has stayed in my mind.

And when I got married, I thought about it. You know, it just seemed like something that, you know, I kind of wish hadn't been said, in a way, despite the fact that it was, you know, supposed to be comforting. And so that's all.

CONAN: And just - I'm sure that there were the rituals that we use to accompany death, funerals and memorials and testimony and prayers, but nevertheless that seems inadequate somehow.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, and I think that sometimes people feel as if the real, authentic conversation in anticipation of these very sad losses, these deeply grieving losses, people want to avoid those rather than recognize that it's important to move through those for both the person who's leaving and the person who is being left behind because what she seems to be saying is that she wanted them to sort of tell the truth as they felt it, as they knew it, rather than try to make her feel good because in the end it didn't make her feel good.

CONAN: Is that - are we getting close to the...?

SAMANTHA: Yeah, that's exactly my point. She definitely said it better than, you know, I could have. I think it's probably the emotional, you know, side of it keeps me from saying it how maybe I should.

CONAN: It's interesting, in your book, that same anthropologist we were talking about before, her father dies suddenly, and she then says yes, there are these awful feelings of pain and - but that she remembers him when she looks in the mirror and sees him in her face, she sees him in the face of her child.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, I think that one of the things that I wanted to say earlier is that there is something obviously within each of after our parents die that the parent survives and is in there. I remember my father was a sociologist, as well, and a professor. And the older I get, as I teach, I stand up and teach, and he is more in me than he was when he first died, which was 25 years ago.

My hand gestures, my smile, this is all my father. So he lives with me and within me always.

CONAN: Samantha, thanks very much for the call.

SAMANTHA: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email that's from John(ph) in University of Florida: Saying goodbye is a major for young adults with chronic health conditions and the pediatricians who care for them. Young adults need to leave the pediatrics and move to adult care because of their changing needs and the limited capacity of children's hospitals. Pediatricians are not trained in how to say goodbye, cope with their own feelings of loss and making this goodbye a positive commencement for young adults and their families.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: That's interesting. That's not something I've studied or known a lot about, but I don't think that doctors in general, even geriatric doctors, as I've heard, necessarily are well-trained in the art of creating the ritual exits for people or helping people with that passage and with that transition.

I grew to feel as if it was so important that professionals of all varieties working with folks, going through major transitions, began to learn how to create the rituals that would be helpful, the rites that would be helpful.In the book I talk about a psychotherapist who is working with her patients, and what she's helping them do is...

CONAN: Mostly young people.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Many of them young people. And looking - helping them say goodbye or exit relationships that are very difficult for them or experiences of trauma or an abuse. But she's also at the same time trying to figure out how to terminate her relationship with them. The psychotherapist language is termination.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I wish they could pick better words.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: And I say in the book I wish they could pick better words, right.

CONAN: Here's an email from Elizabeth(ph) in Oklahoma City: I'm a psychotherapist. Closure is always a part of my thought process when establishing a therapeutic relationship. My personal story of goodbye involves my mother, who suffered a gradual cognitive decline over the course of 20 years. By the time I realized I needed to say goodbye, the time for a meaningful goodbye had passed. I regret more than I can say that I never had a chance to say goodbye.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes, I think that's not an unusual sentiment, and she's expressed it beautifully.

CONAN: There were also, secondhand, you described the story of an oncologist, and you would think cancer doctors would be among those who would be most practiced in this, since most of their patients are going to die in their care.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right, and he's very, very interesting. He treats patients with a rare form of cancer, and so most of these patients will die. And rather than sort of creating these professional boundaries, this kind of distance so he won't feel the pain and won't feel the loss, he does just the opposite: He creates relationships of trust and companionship.

He tries to do for them as they are dying what they need to have done. And he accompanies them to the end, as witness to this experience, and it is through the warmth and depth of this relationship that he is able to say a good goodbye.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Doug(ph), Doug with us from Leavenworth in Kansas.

DOUG: Good afternoon, thanks for having me on. I heard the concept mentioned several times, and that's what prompted my call, of ritualizing goodbyes. I'm in the military, and I've been in the military for 14 years. I've commanded three different organizations in the United States Army, and I believe the military itself does a fantastic job at ritualizing goodbyes, being it God forbid the loss of a soldier, an airman or Marine.

But in particular what I was commenting on or would like to comment on is saying goodbye in your professional career when you leave an organization. There's always what we have, you know, changes of command or changes of responsibility, but some of those rituals go back hundreds of years.

It's very formal, and the entire organization gets to say goodbye. It's OK to get emotional and discuss the grief of giving up command but also the elation at having the responsibility kind of lifted off your shoulders.

CONAN: And more than most organizations, the military is accustomed to such things and understands that they will be happening with some regularity.

DOUG: They do, and they understand the importance and how the individuals in the organization value that ritual and the value that they place on doing it correctly, making sure that everyone gets their chance under the sun, so to say.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: I think that's a lovely example, I mean, that rituals and ceremonies allow again for this complex of feelings, as you say of elation and of grief, of joy and of pain. And I think that that's one of the things that you're describing. Another thing I think is because there's something about the military, obviously, that knows that people may disappear. It may happen any day. And so we take very seriously the smaller goodbyes that may proceed that, as well.

CONAN: Doug, even given that, I am sure you know officers and enlisted who have left the military and yet, well, even despite the rituals, as satisfying as they may be, well, there's grief.

DOUG: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. You know, people leave, and they say, well, the grass is always greener on the other side, and then the next thing you know, a year or six months from now, they're saying that they miss it themselves. They miss the camaraderie. They miss the ritual. So, yeah, absolutely. You're correct.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yeah. They miss the community, the sense of...

DOUG: Yeah.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: ...bonding in that community, which I think the military provides in a way that's very, very important.

CONAN: Yeah.

DOUG: Yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

DOUG: Thank you.

CONAN: And you think of others who are sort of in similar circumstances, athletes who depart, almost a first death, and then go on to other lives, or dancers or people who have limited careers at the beginning for physical reasons.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right. I think the other thing which was brought - which Doug brought up is that these ceremonies are beautiful. There's something artful and something quite beautiful about these endings, and it reminds me of a passage that I quote in the book from W.E.B. Du Bois when he talks about beauty and death. It's a lovely essay. When he talks about in order that endings, goodbyes, departures are complete and therefore they're beautiful, and that ugliness just strings along endlessly. That is, things that are ugly don't have an end. So the idea of making endings beautiful and marking them that way artfully as a time of expression is so important, it seems to me.

CONAN: You also wrote very interestingly, I thought, about John-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit,"...

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes.

CONAN: ...the opposite of what we're talking about.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: It is the opposite, right...

CONAN: And...

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: ...of not being able to exit and free yourself and liberate yourself, that not being able to leave means that you are in prison...

CONAN: And your own torturer.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: ...that you are oppressed and you are your own torturer. That's right.

CONAN: This in a story of a young man who is suffering abuse by bullies at school and the anguish of his parents who are seemingly unable to get to that moment of decision.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Right. Well, they were unable to get to that moment of decision, and they were unable to find anyone within the school for this young boy, who began being bullied when he was five and finally left, saw the exit sign, finally, when he was in fifth grade at 12.

But both the little - the boy and his parents found it hard to sort of say, we're done. It's over. They kept on seeking a solution. They kept on reaching out for help with teachers and with principals and finding it - and other parents and finding that that was not the way out.

CONAN: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, author of "Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free," the distinguished professor of education at Harvard University. We could go on and on and on with her honors, but I'll just say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Email from Julie: Five years ago, I found myself surprised by my reaction after my hysterectomy. I hadn't wanted children for years and still didn't, but I felt there was some ritual or acknowledgment that was missing. I had left one space and entered another with no process other than the medical one.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: Yes. Oh, that's such a wonderful story. And I think it's wonderful partly because it's talking about how this is embodied, something about the body knowing and feeling and experiencing, again, an opportunity to make an exit that is noticeable, that's clear, where people can surround you and support you through what is, you realize after it, an extraordinary sense of loss and bereavement.

CONAN: The action is binary, the emotions are not.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: The emotions are absolutely not.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Michelle, Michelle with us from San Francisco.

MICHELLE: Hi. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, I wanted to talk about my exit. Thirty days before I was about to get married to somebody who I definitely compromised myself for, I left and I said goodbye because I knew that if I stayed and didn't say goodbye to that, that I was going to live this life as a person who always accepted compromise and was less than the woman I knew I could be.

So it was almost like goodbye to this life that I had as a girl, and I became a woman. It was so distinctive that day. And every relationship from that day on that I brought into my life completely changed, even the relationships I have with my family. So it's a pretty incredible transformation and experience to have.

CONAN: So obviously a very difficult decision. But once you'd made it, do you remember the exact moment?

I remember the exact moment. And I just - it was almost as if this person came - this inner self came out and looked at me straight in the eye and said, do you want to continue to be this person, or do you want to be the person that everybody knows that you are, but you've been just too afraid to be? And I just am done, and I said goodbye. It was right then and there I said goodbye, and I left.

MICHELLE: And ever since then, like every single relationship I've brought into my life has been one full of respect and happiness that I've chosen to have in my life. And like I said, even my family relationships became better from that day and all the people around me. It was almost like I took on this whole new respect for myself, and I approached life with a lot more confidence and assurance of who I was.

And so it was a really good thing. And unfortunately, I don't think enough people do that. You know, they kind of go into these marriages where they are compromising themselves and - because I was told. When I left, so many people came up to me and said that they wish that they had done that and that they didn't have the guts to do it. And I was really surprised how many people told me that.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: You know, that's a wonderful story, and it reminds me of something I talk about a lot in the book. That is, that our own individual development, the trajectory of our life stories have within them these entrances and exits, you know, that at each time when we are moving into a next stage in our lives, there is this tug of war between moving forward and staying put, between progression and regression.

Eric Erikson, a very famous psychologist, talked about this 50 years ago. And to move forward to the next level, we need to exit. So exit is a moment of great propulsion, and I think that's what you experience when you finally said, I need to be the person I know I can be and other people know I can be. I will not live this life of compromise.

And the other thing that this points out is that your story of exit had reverberations in all of your relationships with your family, with your coworkers with everyone who knew you. So the ways in which a recognition of the importance of exit has ramifications for your entire community, I think, is also a very powerful notion.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Michelle.

MICHELLE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. We wish we could have gotten to all of the people who emailed and called with, well, interesting and wonderful stories about their exits. Thank you.

LAWRENCE-LIGHTFOOT: It was great to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: The book is "Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free." That last caller is an illustration. When we come back, we're going to be talking about medical emergencies at 40,000 feet. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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