From Chapter 6. A Review of Your Lived and Unlived Life
Most of us live our lives in reaction to changing circumstances, in the details of the moment that require our energy and attention to meet our survival needs, our emotional needs, and the needs of those we love. We are lost in those moments as if they are disconnected from what came before and what comes after, as if they are single, separate entities, like the many-colored threads of a tapestry before we turn it over and stand back to view the finished pattern.
As the great existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”
The effort to understand a life, repair it, and find meaning in it is a natural developmental task of late life. With the loss of the ego’s agenda, we can suffer disorientation, and a life review can help us reorient to the soul’s mission and give us a deeper purpose for late life.
But no one teaches us how to do this in a thoughtful, organized way. No one teaches us how to digest the life we’ve lived, distill the lessons from it, and turn them into wisdom. So, we watch older people trying urgently to tell their stories or reminiscing in a way that makes them appear to be lost in the past.
Fifty years ago, experts in the field of aging believed that this reminiscence was a sign of senility, which reinforced ageist stereotypes. But in the 1960s, renowned gerontologist Robert Butler discovered that many older people seem to be experiencing a profound internal effort to come to terms with everything that happened to them in the past. He coined this phenomenon “life review” and concluded that it is a normal, necessary task of late life, not a pathological one.
Butler suggested that the purpose of life review, whether spoken or written, is to recall unresolved conflicts and reconcile with them through seeing a larger picture or reframing the events. This may lead to reconciliation with estranged loved ones, making amends and forgiving them, or forgiving ourselves. In the best case, it leads us to give up denial or blame and become accountable for the life we’ve lived.
The call to review our lives may come as a gentle nudge to see it from the long view, not through the eyes of youth or of middle age. We want to recognize what we have made with the life we were given, or what it could have been if it had unfolded differently. We want to detect the patterns in our choices, the results of our actions, the coincidences in seemingly chance encounters, and the residue of unfulfilled desires--the full weave of the tapestry and the images revealed there.
Sometimes, the shock of mortality awareness triggers the desire to review our life, evaluate our achievements, and possibly design a new direction. Or the reality of retirement may catalyze a process of self-reflection about the past and inquiry about the future. Sometimes the event of becoming a grandparent stirs a need to tell our stories, to record them in the memories of our family members or in an actual written or video document to create a legacy for future generations. In other cases, a nagging feeling of guilt or shame brings up a need for emotional repair, which requires us to look back and examine when we were harmed or harmed others.
In a less intentional way, people in late life may repeatedly tell the same stories from their past, in a dreamlike, nostalgic reverie, as if to digest something that’s stuck somewhere or to complete something that’s unfinished. They may fantasize about the life they did not live, which they could be living if only this had happened or not happened. Their minds may wander between reality and fantasy, between what is and what’s out of reach, between choices made and not made, opportunities lived and missed, loves gained and lost. And they are haunted by internal shadow characters that grieve lost potential, regret abandoned gifts, long for ideal lovers, and mourn unfulfilled dreams.
In late life, these shadow characters inhabit us and inhibit us from redesigning our lives now. They form an inner obstacle: remaining stuck in denial about the past or stuck in fear about the future. The result: We live in a narrow band of time, unable to make the shift from role to soul.
Instead, with a life review, we can gain the opportunity to see the full arc of a lifetime from a higher, broader vantage point. We can see how the key moments in our lives were interconnected and became sacred passages with a hidden purpose: the evolution of the soul.
My client, Alan, had been harboring resentment toward a woman who had rejected his marriage proposal decades earlier. He just got stuck there. But when he looked at his full life span in the way that we will explore here--backward and forward, above and beneath--he realized that the painful rejection by one person was not isolated from the rest of his life. That pain carried with it a pattern of feelings from his early childhood. This insight led him to seek therapy and to learn how to have a much more rewarding relationship. At last, Alan could reframe that apparent failure as a turning point that took him in a new direction, an ending that became a beginning, a loss that became a gain in awareness and maturity.
Seeing from this deep and wide vantage point, we can release the past and live more fully in the present moment, opening to love of family, creative impulses, and the beauty of the natural world. A life review can be a portal to presence. And it can help prepare us for death by lessening feelings of fear, guilt, anger, and regret as we move toward life completion.
On learning that he had terminal cancer, the late neurologist and prolific author Oliver Sacks wrote, six months before his death, “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. . . . I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. After all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure” (“My Own Life,” New York Times, February 19, 2015).
As a scientist, Sacks viewed life through a material lens. Others, with a more philosophical or spiritual lens, seek to address questions of existential or spiritual meaning in late life: Could we have made different choices, or was our life fated to unfold in this way? What is the meaning of coincidence or synchronicity? Of karma or fate? What is the larger tapestry that is hidden behind our own small story? And who is the weaver?
To see the shape of a life, we need to stand back from it and reflect, as if the tapestry is hanging on the wall. We need to soften our gaze, step out of the immediate moment, and let go of the apparent randomness of events to see the order and beauty of our one-of-a-kind story.
We may be asking: Can we accept ourselves more deeply now? Can we accept our losses and our limits? Should we let go of relationships that continue to disappoint us, or should we use the time remaining to try to repair them? Can we accept our unmet goals and unlived dreams? Or should we use this time to reclaim those dreams, such as write a memoir, learn to play guitar or paint, or travel to exotic lands, even as we move toward life completion?
Some of you will read this and feel immediate resistance: “I don’t care about the past.” “It’s too painful to look back.” “I can’t do anything about that now.” “I don’t have enough time or energy for that.”
This denial or resistance to inner work may be the voice of a shadow character that does not want to face our many disappointments and disillusionments. Perhaps our memories of a trauma or betrayal are too painful, and they have been stuffed away in the shadow for too long. Perhaps a Critic shadow judges us for “sinful” behavior, such as lying or cheating, and we don’t want to face that rejected aspect of ourselves. Or the Critic compares us to an invisible standard of success that we did not attain, creating self-doubt and regret.
It’s also possible that our “inner ageist” is part of the resistance to life review, whispering, “Oh, nostalgia and reminiscence, that’s just for very old people. That’s not me.”
But our denial of this opportunity also denies us the chance to repair the past, forgive ourselves, and pass on what we’ve learned to future generations. And this denial puts us at risk for depression about the past or unhealthy obsession with it. A lack of self-reflection leaves us with a lack of insight, which is needed to become an Elder. It’s as if we’ve gathered a lifetime of bounty and just don’t bother to harvest it.
When I was in my sixties, it never occurred to me to do a life review. For most of my life, I was future-oriented, never interested in looking back. But something began to call me to contemplate my life patterns and digest all that I had learned. For me, this call came through the music of the 1960s and ’70s, listening to Dylan, the Dead, the Band, the Stones . . . and discovering that my brain lit up with joy and my body rose up to move. The rock sounds of my youth connected me to those times. The lyrics arose from my memory like buried sacred texts. And I became ready to look back.
If we do not consciously choose to undertake a life review, it may take place spontaneously, as has been reported by people who’ve had near-death experiences when their lives “flashed” before them. And it may take place unconsciously while we sleep. Jungian analyst James Hollis told me that his older clients, over the age of sixty-five, often dream about unassimilated material from the past, which they need to digest now. “It’s not merely nostalgic,” he said. “It’s how the psyche is making meaning of the life story.”
For instance, Hollis had several physicians as clients who were burning out from work and looking at their futures with dread. Their dreams led them to understand that they had become doctors for the wrong reasons--for their parents’ dreams or cultural expectations. “They were in pain from doing the right thing, which turned into the wrong thing. But they didn’t know it. If they didn’t pay attention to their dreams, they wouldn’t know what was really going on behind the ego’s story.”
Hollis suggested that this kind of connection with the unconscious, or shadow, equips us to deal with the many losses and diminishments of age, including mortality awareness. Through our dreams, we have a felt sense of an ongoing dialogue with something larger than the ego, something deeply meaningful.
In a conversation, Rick Moody reminded me that life review can occur spontaneously in dreams and that this was famously illustrated by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. The novel’s protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, now an older man who has been miserly and unkind all his life, hates Christmas and refuses to give donations to people in need of food. In three dream episodes, Scrooge sees the ghost of Christmas past, when he was an innocent, lonely child; the ghost of Christmas present, where some families celebrate in generosity and joy, while other children starve; and the ghost of Christmas future, which reveals Scrooge’s own funeral that no one attends.
This dark review of his life and his mortality prompts a painful question: “Is it too late for me?” Scrooge wakes up a changed man. He spends time with a family, gives his worker a raise, and sends a turkey to a needy family, finding generosity and renewal in his own heart.
Like Scrooge, many of us meet a shadow part of ourselves in late life and vow to take a different direction. It may not be such an extreme turning as Dickens’s character. But with a life review, we can turn away from harmful or limiting habits and turn toward a larger embrace of life.
Ego’s Life Review
• What is an early formative experience that shaped your later life?
• What is a less obvious, more hidden event that led inevitably to your unique journey?
• How did your body’s story unfold?
• How did your mind develop and change over the years?
• How did your heart open and close over the years?
• How has suffering become your teacher?
Shadow’s Life Review
• Which shadow character in you wants to avoid examining the past? What is it telling you?
• Which shadow character ruminates about the past without distilling wisdom?
• Who is the critical voice that creates regret or “If only . . .” statements about the past?
• What essential part of you had to be repressed for your personality to develop in the way that it did?
• What do you want to reclaim from the shadow to rewrite your story now?
Spiritual Life Review
• What is the myth that you have lived?
• What were your key spiritual experiences over the years?
• What is your soul’s mission or the vow that you have lived?
• Following your life review, can you see the evolution of your soul through new eyes?