Navigating Life’s Transitions With Jay Schadler

Who are you when you’re no longer defined by a job you loved? What happens when your life moves from one stage to the next? Former ABC News broadcaster Jay Schadler offers advice for embracing what’s around the corner.

Jay Schadler with his wife, Jorden Cook, at their home in New Hampshire Photo by Jared Charney

There’s an old New Hampshire story about a farmer just about to enter  a covered bridge with his horse and load of hay. But at the very last moment — after looking closely at the scene ­— he turns around and leaves.  “Why did you stop?” someone asks. “Well, I figured I could get into the bridge alright but I’d never make it out that small hole at the other end.”

Ah, perspective. Without at least a bit of it, bridges can seem damn near impassable.

This special edition of New Hampshire Magazine is all about bridges — life bridges — the kind we must travel across if we are to make our way from one stage of our life to another, from who we have been to who might yet be. And unless we want to mimic that old farmer with his hay wagon — there’s no turning away from the future. So let’s try to get some perspective, shall we?

For starters, some people cross these bridges — these transitions — with a sort of sure-footed ease that leaves me in equal parts dumbfounded and jealous. That’s because I happen to be a dues-paying member of the other group, those of us who have found that steering our way through a significant life transition can be spiked with a cocktail of low self-esteem, high anxiety and a dollop of dread.

Fortunately both approaches — the nimble navigator and the fretful voyager — hold important lessons that can help illuminate the road ahead. So stay with me, we have some traveling to do.

“Afoot and light-hearted I take
to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me
leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune,
I myself am good-fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more,
postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints,
libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the
open road.”

Those are the opening lines from Walt Whitman’s wondrous poem, “Song of the Open Road.”

For more than three decades, it was my song too as I traveled the world reporting and telling stories for ABC News, National Geographic TV and others. I tracked tigers in India and hunted for the source of an Ebola outbreak in the rainforests of Africa. I returned to the Titanic with explorer Bob Ballard and hitchhiked 20,000 miles across the backroads of America.

Along the way my wife, Jorden, and I decided to settle back in New Hampshire where she had spent her childhood summers. Both of her parents had deep roots here, and our wedding was held at the family home in Lee. So in 2003 we moved into a little house on an old dirt road surrounded by nature — the perfect antidote to my otherwise crazy work schedule. It was a full and happy life. Like Whitman’s “Song,” the world seemed wide and open.

But changes were coming.

In 2015 I finally left broadcasting but soon began to feel adrift in my post-career life. (Turns out tracking tigers wasn’t nearly as treacherous as losing my apparent purpose in life.) Still, it was a welcome relief to be off the road, at home with my wife and sleeping in my own bed again. Plus, I was now able to turn my attention to my lifelong passion for art. During my last few years as a reporter, I had opened Jay Schadler Studio and Gallery in downtown Portsmouth, showing and selling my work; photography mostly with elements of pastels, paint and computer graphics. I had long assumed this would be a major piece of my post-TV retirement plan. It didn’t quite work out that way. Life, as it so often does, intervened.

Beginning in 2018 I was sidelined by a number of serious medical issues. Ultimately nothing grave — still I stand — but I was in and out of emergency rooms and hospitals for over a year. I had to close my gallery. The little income I was making dried up.

So, in the space of a couple of years, I had gone from being a globe-trotting correspondent to a sort of nowhere man. I felt physically diminished and mentally lost. My creativity and energy dried up. My camera never left its bag and I rarely left the house. Depression — which I have battled for much of my life — took firm control of the game. Now instead of singing Whitman’s “Song,” I felt like I was living the opening lines of Dante’s “Inferno” — “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood. The right road lost.”

About the author: Jay Schadler is a two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, photographer and artist. He was correspondent and anchor for ABC News for 28 years, reporting for all major platforms including “20/20,” “PrimeTime,” “Good Morning America,” “World News” and “Nightline.” In addition, he has contributed special reports to National Geographic TV, Discovery, Bravo and PBS. He also operated his own studio and gallery for six years. Photo by Jared Charney

Of course, stumbling from the “right road” is practically built into the human genome. And while the details of my story are naturally unique to me, the journey — from where we’ve been to where we’re going, from yesterday to tomorrow — is universal. It’s one everyone makes; women and men, young and old.

It might be triggered by a close of a career or the start of a new one. The beginning of a romance. Or the end of a marriage. The birth of a child. Or the loss of a loved one. Truly any number of countless events — that signal a significant life change — a major transition. And just maybe a transformation.

On this adventure some of us inevitably get stranded. Some get lost. And some will make it home. But make no mistake, the journey is coming. And along the way there can be an unsettling amount of uncertainty about the final destination. Now, for this trip, I offer myself not as a guide or a teacher (certainly no prophet) but as a fellow traveler who, in the memorable lyrics of Cat Stevens, is still “on the road to find out.”

Who Am I? and What Now?

As a reporter I enjoyed most every part of the job; the shooting, the writing, the free-spirited time spent in exotic (or even mundane) places with great camera crews. But perhaps I loved interviewing most of all. After all, I could ask intimate, revealing questions of anyone, from the shy child to the serial killer, without ever having to turn the camera — real or metaphorical — on myself. I was adept at asking questions of everybody but myself. Which is a problem, especially when it comes to navigating life’s transitions, because two diabolically simple but unnerving questions seem to lie at the heart of every major life transition: “Who am I?” and “What now?”

If you’re at all like me — when you finally begin asking yourself those questions in earnest, I advise you to have your medications up to date and an appointment booked with a therapist.

You might also want to apologize to your sleeping partner, because 3 a.m. is when you’re going to start waking up, your mind reeling with these questions but no good answers.

Jay Schadler doing an ABC News brief early in his career. He soon realized he liked doing stories on the road more than from behind an anchor desk, noting, “I was never very good at keeping my hair combed.”

“Who am I?” and “What now?” What gives those questions such depth — even danger — is that they arise at the same moment and precisely because we’re saying goodbye to the identity we’ve so carefully crafted for ourselves over the years: the roles we’ve played, the stories we’ve told, the masks we’ve worn. It can be quite a show. And if you’re not careful, you can start thinking that’s who you really are.

Without an authentic answer to that question, “Who am I?”— your ego does what it loves to do; namely, defines, measures and compares itself with others. And that’s nearly always a bad idea.

I’m reminded of Anne Lamott’s cautionary advice about comparing your insides with someone else’s outsides. Persist in doing that and you inevitably either come up short — i.e., “I’m a failure” or you inflate yourself like a balloon. And there’s nothing quite so ripe for a pin prick from life as a puffed-up ego. I know because mine’s been blown apart on more occasions than I care to remember, including one little ego detonation from my early days in broadcasting that bears repeating if only to make you smile. Coincidentally, it also happens to illustrate what a Tibetan teacher once said was a useful way to rid yourself of that clinging ego. He said, “Reveal your hidden faults.” Well, arrogance was one of my mine and here’s how I revealed it to half-million people one day.

My first job in television news was as a reporter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’d only been on the job for a few weeks when the station’s news director came to me and said he wanted to try me out as the weekend anchor. For a young reporter, pretty heady stuff — and that’s exactly where it went — to my head. I can remember thinking, “I can do this, no problem.” But oh, there would be problems.

So on one of my first weekends I produced the stories that would headline the newscast. One was hard news — Iraq was invading Iran. And one feature story about the local zoo acquiring some new penguins.

So as the newscast began — and you have to picture this in your mind’s eye — I grandly teased the night’s main stories with video clips running behind my shoulder. Sadly for me — I had somehow reversed the order of the video, so when I said that Iraqi troops were marching across the border, the penguins appeared happily waddling in unison into their new pool at the John Paul Park Zoo.

And then, of course, a few seconds later when I then teased the penguin story — you guessed it — out came the Iraqi troops charging into battle.

Needless to say, my ego and I were taken out to the proverbial woodshed and
unceremoniously deflated. As for what this has to do with navigating life’s transitions, I would only say this: less ego, more humor.

Lessons for the Road

Schadler during some downtime on a story about bringing emergency medical supplies — on camelback— to the Samburu tribes in northern Kenya

As I’ve continued paddling my way through these (occasionally humorous but sometimes turbulent) currents that mark the landscape of all big life changes, I’ve been lucky enough to come across a few guides and spirits whose wisdom has helped. And since, as I said, we are fellow travelers, let me share some of the other stories and ideas that have resonated with me.

Reset Your Compass

First, reset your compass — the heading should be forward, not backward. As much as you might like to, you can’t return to yesterday or yesteryear. Einstein won’t allow it. (And you shouldn’t either.) By that, obviously, I don’t mean to stop enjoying your memories — just try to resist resurrecting the past and that old identity of yours at every turn. That’s a recipe for stagnation.

I like the Buddhist teaching that says the transitions in life are not the cause of our suffering. It’s the insistence on trying to bring stuff with us — that’s the problem. Or, listen to the advice of Joseph Campbell: “We must let go of the life we had planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

I often think of that line whenever I recall a story I did while hitchhiking through a desolate stretch of the southwest desert. Temperatures were well over 100 degrees when along comes an old van, driven by an even older fella who picks me up. He says he lives out here — which, given the climate (insufferable) and the landscape (barren), I can hardly believe him. So I ask if I can see his home. He says sure.

A few miles later, he pulls off the road onto a two-track deeper into the desert. And lo and behold, out here in the middle of nowhere, sits a big, blue, broken-down school bus with a tarp for an awning and a gas-powered air conditioner somehow cooling the thing. The whole place is surrounded by a bizarre collection of trash and treasures. Suddenly out pops his wife — smiling and laughing and greeting me like an old lost friend.

It turns out years earlier the couple had been driving their bus through the desert when it got stuck in the sand. They couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back. So they said, “Well, OK. This is our home now.”

Clearly this is not a life you or I would probably ever choose — but they seemed fearless and happy.

“Let go of the life you had planned so you can accept the one that’s waiting for you.”

Schadler says he prepared carefully for interviews, but once he was on the set he would put his notes away and work on having an intimate conversation with the subject.

If you’d prefer a more sublime example from nature, consider the Monarch caterpillar. Now that’s a creature who could rightly claim a formidable self-image — I mean, 16 legs and that whimsically striped body.

But in late summer, after hauling herself into the tall grass and twisting into a J-shape, she dissolves the whole shebang into a shimmering chrysalis, a hanging basket of liquid chemicals. Other than her DNA, she leaves everything behind, which, of course, in a few days, brings her a brand-new identity — one with beautiful wings and the freedom to fly.

In essence, she’s young again.

You want a little of that magic? Try remembering and invoking the child that’s still inside you. The one who might have gone looking for a chrysalis in a meadow. The place where curiosity trumps fear, enchantment outmaneuvers inertia, and where yesterday carries no more weight than … well, a butterfly wing.

Change Is Natural

Now anyone who’s ever lived through the full palette of New Hampshire’s seasons already knows a thing or two about navigating transitions in life. And, of course, change is the hallmark of absolutely everything in the universe, from your face in the mirror to the stars in the sky. But if change is so fundamental, from the cosmetic to the cosmic, why is it sometimes so bloody hard to come to grips with it?

I believe part of the problem is that when we think about change — perhaps especially as we get older — we tend to focus on what has been lost rather than what we might find. But there is a choice here. And it’s ours to make. What’s needed is a shift in perspective.

I once did it a story about a series of archaeological digs among the Mayan ruins of Belize. A vast civilization, dead and buried under nature’s roots and limbs. Lost, as it were.

But as I stood there surveying the scene, I suddenly saw it all through different eyes. What, at first glance, looked like a chaotic, suffocating tangle was in fact vigorous and vital growth. A lush web of energy. Yes, it made the poor archaeologists’ work a tad more difficult, but there was no denying that an overpowering new life force had emerged from the ruins.

So for our purposes, if you happen to be struggling with a life transition — thinking of it as a bit of ruin — try reimagining yourself as a jungle of possibilities. Because that’s what you are. Resisting change is resisting life. Coping with change in the outside world is an inside job — inside your head.

Your True Self

Schadler at his former art studio and gallery in Portsmouth. After leaving broadcasting, he concentrated on his art, which is photography with elements of pastels and paint.

I have a guru in my life. She happens to be my wife. In addition to putting up with my overall strangeness as a human being, she has great gift for cutting to the heart of matters. Especially on matters of the heart.

Not long ago while on one of our daily walks together, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Why not start listening to a new voice in your head? Let’s be honest, the old one isn’t doing you any favors.” (She’s brilliant, but blunt.)

What did she mean? And what is this new voice? Actually it’s always been around — because it’s your true voice — your true self speaking with a kind of quiet wisdom you might not have known you even possess. If you like, think of it as a sort of divine intervention courtesy of yourself.

“What’s it sound like?” I asked. “It’s unmistakable,” she said.

Unlike the old voice — who’s so often harsh and punishing — your true voice is always full of compassion and kindness for yourself. Where the old voice cranks out negativity, this one reminds you to be hopeful and confident. And where the old one screams doubts and fears, this one calmly whispers “all is well.” It’s not a Pollyanna voice — more like a wise counselor.

So I started listening for it. And I couldn’t hear it.

At least not at first. Mind you, the old voices will not go gently into that good night. My God, mine still chatter away like a Trump twitter feed.

But I’ve kept at it, reminding — essentially rewiring — my brain to listen for that deep and indestructible part of my being. And I’m happy to report that occasionally now and then the din does fade. And I hear myself. My true self saying “all is well.”

In the event your own true voice has contracted a nasty case of laryngitis, you might alternatively try letting it write a simple affirmation for yourself. Here’s one I’ve started using:

I am an original.

I am not afraid.

I will be gentle with myself and listen
for my soul.

Work Is the Way

Let me back into this next idea. When I was a young boy, my grandfather made a homemade telescope and together on summer evenings we’d gaze at the craters on the moon, Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s great red spot.

Because of those magical nights I eventually became an amateur astronomer, which as it turns out, can be a very valuable passion when it comes to navigating life’s transitions. I mean, here we are standing on a minor planet, circling an average star, spinning its way through galaxy with a 100 billion other stars. All in a universe sprinkled with another 100 billion galaxies.

If all of that doesn’t take some of the sting out of negotiating our next little transitions in life, I think there’s a simple reason: Instead of using the (metaphorical) telescope to see the long view, we keep pulling out the microscope to dissect the minutiae of our own lives.

It seems especially during these times of transition our internal geography can get scaled down to miniature size, making it terribly easy to get locked inside ourselves. But there is a handy key to get out. And work is the way.

Obviously I’m defining “work” here very broadly. It can be a job, a pastime or just a daily sense of amazement with the mystery and miracle of nature. Maybe that’s the best kind of work because it lifts the perspective from our tiny egos toward something incomprehensibly immense and grand.

But if you need some practical motivation, you might try thinking about Annie Dillard’s great observation: “How you spend your days is, of course, how you spend your life.” Ponder that for a moment and it can wake you up.

I’ve also always liked the story about the great cellist Pablo Casals, who worked practically every day of his long, long life — 96 years. When he was asked, late in his life, why he continued to work and practice four or five hours a day, he reportedly said, “Because I think I’m making progress.”

Now that’s an attitude that will keep you alive and engaged whether you’re playing the cello or volunteering at the local food bank.

While you’re at it, don’t get hung up on notions of success or failure. You will do both. Often at the same time. And absolutely don’t get trapped by any pesky idea of “perfection.” If what you are doing shifts your attention away from your naval, then well enough is good enough. Mistakes, missteps and flaws are roads into the soul. Which brings me to this:

Amor Fati

“Amor fati” is a Latin phrase that translates as “love of fate” or “to love one’s fate.” It’s at the heart of the ancient philosophy of stoicism. And it’s what the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius meant when he said, “All that is in accord with you, World, is in accord with me.”

The idea here is to not just accept — but to revel — in the whole crazy quilt of your life. Put your arrogant, most embarrassing and insanely regrettable moments right in there alongside the wonderful, joyful and sublime ones. I think it’s what the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi may have been alluding to when he wrote:

“the dark thought, the shame, the malice / meet them at the door laughing and invite them in”

Understand that good and bad, success and failure, winning and losing are just temporary labels we slap on events when they’re happening but on closer inspection, and often over time, dissolve into each other.

Deepak Chopra has a little exercise about this. He says list five events (transitions?) that you’d label as good in your life and five you’d describe as bad. Now look more closely at them. Yes, that big promotion was a great thing — but of course it took you away from your family, distanced you from your spouse and eventually led to a divorce.

As for divorce — yes, a tragedy — except that over time you saw that it freed you from the wrong relationship and opened the way to new love.

Life’s transitions are full of these contradictions. Try your best to embrace them all. Be grateful for them all. And if that’s too difficult, start with being thankful for that apricot jam on your toast this morning and work your way up.

A Confession

Having arrived at this point, I have a confession to make. I started by saying those vexing questions “Who am I?” and “What now?” were at the center of navigating my life’s journey. I’m not so sure anymore. They strike me now as just another attempt by my ego to claim the spotlight. At this point, a different kind of light has begun to interest me. One that shines from beyond I, me and mine.

And when I said that during this journey “some get stranded, some get lost, some make it home,” I didn’t realize then, and I do now, that getting lost is sometimes the only way to get home.

The lessons I’ve touched on here won’t always work. And the guides and spirits will often be silent. But as the poet Wendell Berry said:

“It may be when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

Jay Schadler is available as speaker for groups, organizations and companies. Reach him at jayschadlerart@gmail.com or (603) 531-9998.

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