When my mother was in her nineties, she became obsessed with telling me stories of her life. I heard about people, places and experiences that she had never shared with me, or perhaps anyone, before. I understood her need to go back and revisit her life in light of Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development. The last stage, “Ego Integrity vs. Despair”, he considered the stage when an individual developed the virtue of wisdom. He contended that during this stage an individual reflects on his or her life and makes a determination as to whether or not it was of value. Their conclusion leads them either to despair and to the belief that their life was wasted or to the conclusion that life was meaningful and of value to society.
Mom often repeated the same story again and again, almost word for word, as if she had been rehearsing it for a lifetime, but needed to share it one more time, to make it “right”, or make sense of it somehow. It was clear to me that she was struggling to reach a place of acceptance and affirmation. Many times she ended her stories with the wrap up, “It’s been a good life”. I worried whether or not she actually believed this affirmation as she was so prone to despair throughout her life.
Now, as the years add up for me, I have already begun to see this process taking place. I am thirty years younger than she was at the time. Had she been thinking about these things for some time, but had never been able to quite resolve the conflict? Or did I start the process early? Or perhaps, is there another way to look at it.
Carl Jung’s second task in his Seven Tasks of Aging is a “Life Review”. Life tasks seem to arise on cue in most individuals, but we still have the choice as to whether or not we accept the challenge. We decided when and how to step into, and engage, the process in order to be prepared for the next step the task must be taken on. We learn from a life review as we wrestle with our mistakes, our regrets and disappointments and realign ourselves with our beliefs and our values. Perhaps that is why memoirs are such a popular genre these days. People have more time and freedom to take on this lengthy review process.
we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know all the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves
More by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
It is in the process of a life review that we find our answers. Through participation in the tasks of aging we grow in wisdom and become increasingly congruent. it is important to remember that though we are called to undertake these tasks, it might be better to think of them as on-going processes. We learn and grow when we embrace them, but they ebb and flow, sometimes urgently calling us, sometimes slipping out of sight for a time. Rising to greet the urging when it appears rather than shying away from it will enrich our lives as we age.
Have you begun the task of a “Life Review”? What have you discovered?