When my mother was dying of excruciating kidney cancer that had spread to her bones, even though she was completely bedridden on strong painkillers, she insisted on going over and over her life. She wanted to ask forgiveness for things she saw as mistakes. To Dr. Robert Butler, what she was doing was a life review, a “naturally occurring, universal mental process characterized by the progressive return to consciousness of past experiences, and, particularly, the resurgence of unresolved conflicts.” According to Butler and others, such a review allows the dying to die in peace by reintegrating life events so that they give meaning to a life.
Butler (1927-2010) is a giant in the field of aging and gerontology, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Why Survive?: Being Old in America (1975), serving as the first director of the National Institute on Aging, and founding the first department of geriatric medicine. But the contribution that has permeated so much of psychology and self-help, is the notion of a “life review,” which has grown into a therapeutic treatment used with adults at all stages of life.
Others have seized on the life review concept as a way of creating a meaningful retirement. Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, advises dividing your life into sections—your age divided by 12—and reviewing a section each week in a memoir. Other retirement gurus like Richard Leider use the idea of life review to promote writing an ethical will in which you distill your life experiences into wisdom and values you have gained. Gene Cohen also advises writing an autobiography that includes unfinished interests and dreams. Even a book written for all ages, Designing Your Life incorporates a version of the life review.
I read all these books, but I mostly ignored the advice to do a life review. I didn’t have time; I wanted to get on with the new chapter I was writing in retirement. Then came the pandemic and lots of time. Suddenly I found myself looking back. I realized that my life has turned a corner. I no longer have more time ahead than behind me. Life might seem like a circle, childhood, adulthood, elderhood, and circling back to dependent old age, but, chronologically, it’s not a circle, and we don’t get do-overs. We traverse a straight line forward, ending in death. That said, we have the ability to look back and make emotional sense of our lives, to find meaning, and in the language of Erikson, to achieve ego integrity. But am I ready for this?
Last week I visited a cabin on Lake Superior. The weather was abysmal, an occluded gray of mist. I wanted to hike, but the woods near the cabin was a morass of red mud and exposed roots. I decided to walk the paved path in Two Harbors, a community of about 3700 people just south of the cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. The trail was an out-and-back, straight walk, repeating the same path in each direction. On the way north, with my eyes peeled on the lake shore, I passed the city water works, a somewhat rickety old light house at the end of a long pier, an equally long freighter in the harbor, and scrubby wooded areas. It wasn’t particularly scenic, aside from the natural beauty of Lake Superior.
On the way back, over that same path, my focus turned to the side away from the lake. I noticed a wetland, with cattails and grass waking up to spring. As I walked further, a small woods, preserved by the people of Two Harbors, sheltered my walk. I realized that I had not noticed either of these beauties on my way out. It wasn’t until turning around, heading back, looking from another perspective that I saw what I had missed by being so focused on the enormity of the lake. I’d missed the whole of the walk, both sides.
Which brings me to a favorite Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now. For me, the last stanza captures precisely what I feel and am afraid to face when I consider doing a life review.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.
Mitchell herself says that “This is a song that talks about sides to things. In most cases, there are both sides to things and in a lot of cases, there are more than just both.” So am I ready to see not just both but all sides, the whole of my life? To let go of my present narrative of the past for a different one? Or if I do a life review, will I end up feeling, “I really don’t know life at all?” I’m not sure. Perhaps my older self, no longer in such a hurry to get somewhere will make something different of the past. Like most of us, I’ve often imagined what I would do if I could have a do-over of some parts of my life, knowing there is no such thing. But there’s still the think-over, the life review, and I don’t have to wait like my mother did until I’m dying. Now I just need the courage to take the risk of a life review, and do it now, not later!