At a recent 80th birthday luncheon in honor of our friend and colleague, Eleanor, Charlie asked what this time of life is like for her. She paused thoughtfully and gave a somewhat surprising answer. Rather than sharing her enthusiasm about the upcoming trainings and presentations she still offers internationally, she told us, “A lot of it is remembering things from the past and seeing how it’s all connected. How one event was necessary so that something else could happen. I think about that a lot these days.”

In addition to her rewarding work life, Eleanor seems to be engaged in what pioneering gerontologist Robert Butler called the life review – a process of reflecting on the memories that spontaneously return in later life, finding the threads of meaning that run through them, and eventually discovering a sense of wholeness and completion about the life one has lived.  Butler observed that the process helps prepare us for death, but it also has profound benefits for living. The life review enhances psychological well-being, it deepens our store of wisdom, and it enriches the legacies we have to share with the human family.

Lesedi Cultural Village woman

Welcoming Memories and Emotions

Memories are messengers, much like dreams. They usually point to something important, and they come in the service of wholeness and well-being. Each memory – and the emotions it invokes – is an opportunity to relive and better understand our ourselves and our life. Revisiting the people and scenes of the past that come calling allows us to savor and be grateful for the blessings we’ve known. (And neuroscientists point out that savoring positive emotions and experiences helps to sculpt the brain toward greater contentment.)

Uncomfortable memories, like nightmares, are especially important to attend to because they illuminate the stepchildren of our souls, the parts of our history that need to be reckoned with and integrated. Reflecting on memories about which we still carry guilt or resentment, for example, can ultimately lead to necessary forgiveness, deeper understanding, and acceptance of ourselves and others.

Senior Man Pondering

Befriending Bewilderment

The life review brings us face-to-face with our immense complexity—and our contradictions. One memory illustrates our pettiness, another our generosity, and our task is to face and ultimately find a way to accept all that we are and have been. This can be bewildering work, yet as psychiatrist Carl Jung pointed out, we are not simply this or that. We are “multiplicities,” composed of an enormous range of qualities, many of them apparent opposites. And yet, it is the tension of contradiction that often brings forth some of the richest understanding of ourselves – and of others.

In Remembered Lives ethnologist Barbara Myerhoff and author Deena Metzger observe that reflecting on the wide variety of memories that come calling in later life enables us to see ourselves and our life story more fully and truthfully than is possible from the perspective of youth. And in The Uses of Reminiscence gerontologist and psychotherapist Marc Kaminsky points out that for most older people the life review is “not composed of an orderly progression of memories, organized into a coherent narrative . . . Life reviews are largely quiltwork affairs, a matter of bits and pieces all stitched together according to a not very readily visible pattern.” However, in the midst of what may seem to be random and sometimes contradictory memories, over time an underlying pattern of meaning and cohesiveness begins to reveal itself.

Sharing Our Stories

It is not for ourselves alone that we remember, however. As gerontologist Ron Manheimer points out in Kaminsky’s All That our Eyes Have Seen, “We are mistaken . . . in thinking that people remember only for the sake of the past, when in fact old people remember for the sake of the future.” One of the traditional roles of the elder is storytelling. And in sharing the stories of our own life and of those who have gone before, we pass on wisdom and reaffirm our interconnectedness, the continuity of life, and the endurance of the human spirit. In our hurried, virtual, and often isolating postmodern world, these legacies of wisdom, belonging, and hope may be more crucial than they have ever been. But this is a tale for another time and later blog.

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