Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

The Harvard sociologist explains her new text, Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free.

Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has been on the faculty of Harvard's Graduate School of Education since 1972. Known for her pioneering approach to social science methodology, her work examines the culture of schools, the broad ecology of education and the relationship between human development and social change. The MacArthur prize winner has written 10 books, including Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free, which explores the ways people leave one thing and move on to the next. Upon her retirement, Lawrence-Lightfoot will become the first African American woman in Harvard’s history with an endowed chair in her name.


Tavis: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is a renowned Harvard professor and author whose previous books include “The Third Chapter” and “The Essential Conversation.” Her latest is called “Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free.” She joins us tonight from Newton, Massachusetts. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot, good to have you on this program.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: It’s great to be here. Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Tell me more about your fascination with endings.

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Well, I’ve noticed for a very long time from when I was very young how little attention is paid to departures, exits, goodbyes, in our society in general, in our families, in our schools, in our communities, that we’re so preoccupied with beginnings, with launchings, with tilting towards to the future, with seizing opportunities that we neglect the important moments of reflection and generativity that can go on when we’re saying goodbye and when we’re making a move to leave and move on to something next.

Tavis: Endings aren’t always easy, but the way that you lay out the text helps us more easily process how to gracefully exit situations. I love the layout of the text. Chapter 1 is called “Home,” Chapter 2 is called “Voice,” Chapter 3 “Freedom,” Chapter 4 “Wombs,” Chapter 5 “Learning,” Chapter 6 “Grace.” Let me ask you to top-line for me each of those chapters because, again, it’s an easy book to read even though endings aren’t always easy to navigate. Tell me about “Home.”

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Right. Well, you know, in each of these chapters, there are two portraits of people who are going through different kinds of exits. The idea here is that, if we look through the lens or prism of exit at fundamental human experiences, we will see them differently than if we don’t look through lenses of exits. So in the “Home” chapter, here’s a story of a young 16-year-old Iranian man who is forced to leave Iran because of the brutal war going on there and to come to this country, leave his family which is very, very hard to do, in order to sort of save his life.

So it is really about the exit that he makes from there which is a forced exit and how he finds home here not in a particular place, but in his sort of resolution that he is able to both kind of continue to live with his family in his body and in his spirit even as he comes here. The second story in “Home” is about a gay activist middle-aged man and his exit from the closet and how he finds home within himself and within his community in developing a fully out-there identity as a gay man. So that’s the exit that he talks about where he finds home.

Tavis: Let’s talk about “Voice.”

Lawrence-Lightfoot: “Voice” is really interestingly the story of a woman who started a nonprofit for young teenagers, rural teenagers, most of them poor and white, helping them learn outside of the context of school in the rural environment. She did that for 25 years and recognized that this was her entire life, that in order for her to live the next chapter of her life, she was about 55, if there was going to be another chapter, she had to leave the organization.

At the same time, she realized that the organization needed new leadership, so she really planned her exit very ritualized. The transition was done with great smoothness and alacrity and grace. What she discovered in leaving there was that, in order to find her solo voice, in order to emerge to a new chapter, she had to leave the organization which had been a kind of collective voice. She had organized that organization and built it so that it was a very collaborative organization. So it is about finding her voice through exit.

Tavis: I wanted to mention all the chapters to give the reader a sense of how the book is laid out and how easy it is to, again, navigate. But since you mentioned alacrity and grace just a moment ago, it’s that latter word that I want to come back to because ultimately what I think we’re all struggling with, professor, is how when we come upon these endings in our lives, how we exit with purposefulness, how we do it with dignity, how we do it with grace. Have you figured out the answer to that all-important question?

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Well, you know, the last chapter of this book is “Grace” and it really is, of course, as it should be, it is the final exit. It is a man who is dying of terrible cancer and his wife promises him that his exit will be beautiful, it’ll be celebratory, that he will die at home surrounded by his family and by his friends, and it will be a purposeful exit. The people who surround him will bring stories and memories and conversation and love and ritual and prayers and song. For those weeks in which he’s dying at home in hospice, he will be surrounded by people, not put off in a corner to die alone, but very much out in the open and in the light.

There’s a way in which that’s a lovely metaphor for other kinds of graceful exits, that we have to look at exits as moments of opportunity. We have to see in them the chance for ritual and ceremony, community-building, storytelling, all those things which we can do in a purposeful way to recognize, as I said before, the sort of generativity of these experiences of exit.

Our societies sort of looks at exits as negative spaces in our life journeys rather than as moments of propulsion. So part of it just has to do with our framing of it, our regard of it, putting it in the light and putting sort of a ritual and ceremony around it so that people will feel as if they are in those moments part of a community, a community that embraces them, that nurtures them, that supports them and that helps to propel them to the next chapter.

Tavis: I think you’re right about the fact, professor, that some of the difficulty that comes along with gracefully exiting, with gracefully ending a particular project or phase of our lives or, for that matter, life itself, has to do with societal framing. But it also seems to me that, for whatever reason, not that beginnings are easy, we just have internally in our spirits and souls a more difficult time with endings. If I’m right about that, why do you think that’s the case?

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Well, I think because most things that were ending, we have committed to, we have been responsible to, we have worked hard with, we built relationships around, and we have roles and status in them, and it’s very hard to let all that go that has been so much involved in shaping our identity and our feelings of self-worth. To sort of separate ourselves from that and move on to the next chapter always entails some loss.

One of the reasons I talked about the endings that set us free is that the other part of loss, if we can feel it and be purposeful about it, is liberation. So even though it’s hard to leave that sense of well-being or even self-worth even if it wasn’t a good experience, there’s something about our identity that is involved with that. Even though it’s hard and there is inevitably a feeling of loss and disorientation and confusion and ambivalence, there’s all of that in it. But there’s also the opportunity for liberation, for setting yourself free for the next chapter, whatever it might be.

Tavis: Sometimes, though, when we come to an exit, when we come to an end, we don’t always feel free. We feel bound, sometimes bound by the past, bound by obligation, bound by a variety of different things. So what say you to those of us who come to endings, come to exits, and we don’t feel a sense of freedom, we don’t feel that we’ve been liberated?

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Well, I think that partly it is then that we need to reflect on where we’ve been and extricate ourselves from those haunts, those shadows, those places where we do feel bound by these ancient relationships or by these relationships or even organizational structures that haven’t been nourishing for us. I think only when we have made a good exit can we begin and launch ourselves into something productive.

So I think that it really behooves us to be reflective, to be self-critical, to go through this moment of pause and look back as a way to try to extricate ourselves from those things which make us feel bound in, which make us feel inhibited, which make us feel reticent to take the next step or even to experience the freedom that will allow us to take the next step.

Tavis: I’ve learned in my own life and I’m sure that there are others who could agree and attest to this, that in life when we come to those endings, when we come to those exits, sometimes we jump and sometimes we get pushed. Sometimes you go voluntarily, sometimes you go involuntarily. The question is, how do we – help us here in terms of how we make decisions and, for that matter, advance toward the exit, advance toward the door, bring something to an end when that is the best option. How do we make that transition and that decision?

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Right. Well, it’s interesting that forced exits are often quite different from unforced exits, chosen exits. But one of the things I discovered in talking to many, many people who had gone through exits of a variety of kinds is that even those of us who choose an exit find it still hard to leave, right? That is, just because we choose it and even though we set up a kind of a celebration or a set of rituals or a way of proceeding and we pass the baton to the next person, we’re often feeling lost and alone and isolated and marginalized by a decision that we made on purpose. So I think all exits are difficult. One of the things I found was that there are two kinds of experiences of exit that everyone talked about.

One is that moment when all the sensations come together, all the forces come together and we say it just seems to come out of our body, “I’m out of here, I’m done, it’s over” and we make a public announcement about that. It almost feels as if we’re just doing it all of a sudden. But then the experience is of everyone who does that is that, if they look back, they realize that they’ve been exiting for a very long time, that this is a iterative process and that it’s a messy process and that it’s a complicated process. So they exit these many, many exits before they get to the big moment of announcement or proclamation.

But then after they exit, there are a kind of ripple effects. There are reverberations from that exit in which we’re still doubting ourselves. We’re still sort of looking back. We’re still unsure. So I guess it’s important that people sort of recognize the messy, iterative building quality of exits, the moment when they pay attention to it and it seems to come all of a sudden made public. But even then, it doesn’t become absolutely clear right away. There are these reverberations from the exit that may last a while.

Tavis: I don’t know when her exit from Harvard will come. She’s been there for better than 40 years now and has written a litany of wonderful texts, so much so that Harvard has honored her as the first African American woman in its history to have a professorship named in her honor. Her latest text is called “Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free.” She is Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Professor, good to have you on. Great book. We just scratched the surface, but I’m sure readers will be excited to get into the text.

Lawrence-Lightfoot: Okay. Wonderful to talk to you as well. Thank you.

Tavis: Thanks for coming on.

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Last modified: November 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm