From Chapter 6. Reviewing the Tapestry 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 or what comes after.
As the great existential philosopher Kierkegaard said, “We live life forward but understand it backward.”
I believe that the effort to understand it, repair it, and find meaning in it is a natural developmental task of late life. As we suffer disorientation with the loss of the ego’s agenda, a life review can help us reorient to the soul’s mission, 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 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 reconciling with estranged loved ones, making amends and forgiving them, or forgiving ourselves. In the best case, it leads giving up denial or blame and becoming accountable for the life we’ve lived.
People may feel the need to review their lives as a gentle nudge to see it from the long view, not through the eyes of youth or the eyes 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 lives, 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. For others, the event of becoming a grandparent stirs a need to tell their stories, to record a written or video life review to create a legacy for future generations. For others, a nagging 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, other people appear to tell the same stories from the past in a dream-like, nostalgic reverie, as if to digest something that’s stuck somewhere or to complete something that’s unfinished. They may secretly fantasize about the life they did not live, which they could be living if only this had happened or not happened. Their minds wander between reality and fantasy, between what is and what’s out of reach. Between choices made and not made, opportunities lived and opportunities missed, loves gained and loves 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 the fifth 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, which I call 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 lifespan in the way that I will describe here--backward and forward, above and beneath--he realized that the pain of that event was not an isolated rejection. It 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 to prepare us for death by lessening fear, anger, and regret as we move toward life completion.
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?
• 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. . .” 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?
To begin a spiritual life review, ask yourself the following questions.
• What is the myth that you have lived?
• What were your key spiritual experiences?
• 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?