Portrait of an Institution
Portrait of a Concept
Portrait of a Relationship
Portrait of a Developmental Stage
Portrait of a Process
Portrait of a Process
[Artist: Jane Beveridge (1970)]
Our culture seems to applaud 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, take on important work, get married, embark on an adventure. These are likely to be moments of hope, optimism, and expectation as we compose the next chapter for ourselves. We give kudos to someone who is entrepreneurial, who paves a path for himself, who has a plan for what’s next and can plot the strategy to move from here to there. By contrast, our exits are often ignored or invisible. They seem to represent the negative spaces of 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.
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; where 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; where demographers predict that our young adults, now in their twenties, will likely have ten careers—not just ten jobs—and it will be crucial that they learn not just the art of beginning anew but also the grit and grace of good exits; where, in these tough economic times, the agony of exits seems to be the dominant narrative, as everyone knows someone in her family or among her close friends who has lost her job or is experiencing the painful assault of forced unemployment; and where 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, from my point of view, begs for more clear-eyed and respectful attention, more beautiful rituals, and more cultural honoring.
Our societal neglect of the rituals and purposes of exits is not only a puzzling contemporary phenomenon; it is also strange when we consider the history of our country—a history that has been primarily defined by leave-takings, departures, and journeys away from home. Except for Native Americans, who were our country’s first inhabitants, or enslaved Africans, who were brought here against their will, the history of the United States has been defined by exits. Albert Hirschman, whose book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970) remains the classic theoretical text on the subject, underscores its centrality in the American tradition and psyche even as he offers an economic framework and analysis. After citing the seventeenth-century settlers fleeing European life, the American Revolution, and the westward expansion, Hirschman even paints the American idea of success—upward social mobility—as a sort of exit. He claims that the ideology of exit has been dominant and powerful in America:
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. I learned about the power and poignancy of exits most vividly as I became immersed in the research for my last book, The Third Chapter. Witnessing and documenting the new learning of people between the ages of fifty and seventy-five—a time in life when demographers tell us we are “neither young nor old”—I became keenly aware of the fragility and bravery associated with exits. It is difficult, sometimes excruciating and painful, to leave the places that are familiar, the roles that have shaped our identities and self-images, the work in which we have become skilled, knowledgeable, and authoritative, to do something that—at least initially—feels awkward and uncertain. More than half a century ago, when Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist, charted the stages of lifelong development, he envisioned each stage as a conflict between progression and regression—an inevitable tension between staying put and moving on, between sticking with the familiar and moving toward the strange. At the center of the contrary weights moving us forward and pulling us back is, of course, the leave-taking, the exit.