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When It’s OK to Rehash the Past

FatherDaughter_Bench_400Conducting a “life review” as a senior is a powerful way to heal old wounds, gain clarity, and pass on your wisdom to loved ones. Conscious Living, Conscious Aging shares how to approach this impactful process.

The mainstream view of aging seems to hold that people with gray hair who develop some measure of elder wisdom do so simply by living many years and having many experiences. It also says that life’s inevitable wounds, if they can heal, do so naturally, without effort.

“Don’t dwell in the past,” many say, “because there’s nothing you can do to change it. We all have scars. Live as best you can now. Accept that idealism is for the young, who haven’t yet borne the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

In sharp contrast, conscious eldering sees great value in examining the past. It holds that true wisdom is the result of experience consciously reflected upon and that the past can be healed so that we can age with clear, strong energy and an idealism informed by experience. Rather than being symbols of how life has beaten us down, the scars we carry can be testaments to how we are like the tree that, even with its scars, covers itself with new growth every year.

Life review is the foundation for much of the inner work of conscious eldering. It is our opportunity to come to terms with where we have traveled to reach this point of departure into a new chapter. It is the way that we recall our often long-forgotten experiences and bring to awareness what we learned—or still have the opportunity to learn—from those events. Life review helps us become aware of aspects of our past that may seem like vague images in our memory, consigned to the realm of the unconscious but that continue to exert a powerful influence on our lives. They may be experiences of loss that have never been fully grieved, of wounds that have not healed, of resentments that have not been forgiven—all of which sap our energy, close our hearts, and dull our light as we age. These may also be experiences of joy, compassion, idealism, strength, heroism, and divine support (perhaps forgotten) that can serve as sources of inspiration, reminding us what is best in ourselves and in life.

There are many ways to engage in life review. For example, you might break your life into seven segments and examine each one. Imagine your life encompassing the cycle of a year, with January being your first seven years; February, ages eight to fourteen; October, ages sixty-four to seventy; and December, seventy-eight plus. Other possibilities for life review include looking at your life with a focus on particular themes. You might consider writing an autobiography in which you tell the story of your life’s most significant events and lessons to your children or descendants. You could ask a friend to do oral history work with you and use video to capture you telling your stories. Other ideas include participating in life review workshops and utilizing life review resources, which can be found on search engines. The possibilities are endless and just calling for your creativity. For example, in an excellent article written for the journal Itineraries titled “The Family Quilt: Harvesting and Sharing Life’s Wisdom,” Steve Harsh movingly tells of how his grandmother created a quilt composed of symbols of the landmark events in the life of his family and how she used this quilt to tell the story of her life.

However you do life review work, what is most important is to recall key experiences and reflect on what they mean for you now. Review work is largely about the insights or new understandings that emerge as you reflect. Perhaps these experiences point to actions you need to take to help heal your past or to stories you have created about your past that need to be rewritten as you bring a broader perspective to your life. Your review may make you aware of strengths you need to cultivate, and it may get you in touch with still-alive embers of old dreams or passions that call to be rekindled.

Two powerful forces operate in each of our lives to shape who we become as we age. One of these is the past. With conscious effort, we have the ability to heal and learn from our past so that it becomes a source of strength and wisdom in our elder years. The other force is that deep calling—the sense of how we can come most alive through sharing our gifts—that is encoded in our souls and works to lead us toward its fulfillment. An important aspect of conscious eldering is our intention and work to gain ever-clearer access to this calling.

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