A Life Review

A Life Review

Fleurs - Jean Claude Papeix
Fleurs – Jean Claude Papeix

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?

8 Replies to “A Life Review”

  1. I first began feeling this urge in my 50s. It grew stronger in my 60s. I completely identify with this description: “we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us.” A literary award competition in the local newspaper in Kalamazoo gave me the push I needed to move the inner dialogue into writing I could share with others. When we moved to Virginia, I took my earlier essays and shaped them into the book that became Blush.

    I agree that the memoir boom is greatly fueled by so many people going through this developmental stage at the same time.

    1. I have written many reflective pieces as I blogged to understand the aging process thing, but I’ve begun to feel the nudge to write a memoir; to tell a bit of my story through the lens of time and how I’ve come to understand it. Also, there’s the healing process i the telling. Did you find that to be true for you, Shirley?

  2. I’m not sure if you started the process early Dorothy, or that our generation was so much advanced and aware as our parents’ were. When you’ve experienced a lot through life and especially, write about it, I think it is what makes us much more aware of who we are, where we’ve come from, and understand our families more. I know I certainly put a lot of my life in perspective while writing my first book. I love your thought process. 🙂

    1. Good point, Debby (is that what people call you?). Our elevated awareness is so far beyond where my parent’s were. It never occurred to them to think about such things, frustrating the daylights out of their daughter! However, I see more clearly now the evolution of thought thanks to psychology, etc. I’m enjoying where things are going now and wish I could linger another century to see the path it takes.

  3. I am happy to hear that your mother was so forthcoming with sharing her recollections and wisdom gathered over a lifetime. When my mother reached her nineties, I felt impelled to ask her about her life as I composed blog posts, and thus gathered more information. How I wish I had more time!

    Plaudits to you for valuing all of this, Dorothy. The idea of tickle and thunder I do recognize.

    1. I wish I had more time too, Marian. My brother recorded a few stories that I have not had the opportunity to replay. I wrote down a few more. I’m still hesitant to listen to her voice again, but one day, I will.

  4. Dorothy,
    The writing of my upcoming memoir has definitely been a life review for me. And I find it continues even after the final revisions. As the days pass, I continue to find new insite into who I am and why I’ve made the choices, good or bad, that I have. The healing it has brought to me has been wonderful.

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