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New beginnings are often roundly celebrated, but a lot can be learned from goodbyes, too. (iStockphoto.com)

Marking The Moment With A Meaningful 'Exit'

by NPR Staff
Jun 11, 2012 (Talk of the Nation)

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Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is a professor of education at Harvard University.

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Exits are ubiquitous; long or short, grand or modest, we've all left something, from resigning from a long-held position to waving goodbye to a friend after lunch. In Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot explores endings through the stories of people in transition.

Too often "we tend to ignore and diminish endings," she writes, while celebrating beginnings. Instead, we should "develop the habit of marking the small goodbyes to help us master the larger farewells."

NPR's Neal Conan speaks with Lawrence-Lightfoot about her book and making the most of goodbyes.


Interview Highlights

On the importance of exits

"[In] our own individual development, the trajectory of our life stories [has] 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."

On unplanned exits

"[It'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 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."

On how oncologist Dr. Willard Wang prepares his patients for their eventual exits, and himself

"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."

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