Life review is often viewed as something you do late in life, a time when one is supposedly free from the stress of responsibilities, so why not reminisce? It is as if reminiscence is something that "old people do", they, after all, as the stereotype has it, have plenty of time on their hands. The so-called "living in the past" is definitely not seen as an activity with too much value, far away from the "busy busy" "active active' life we are groomed to go after and appreciate. Leave the life review to the old folks, the thought goes, what's more is that since they are on the average "closer to death", they will have the urgency to do it…you know, prepare that legacy for the kids and grandkids before it is "too late".
Time for a change, I submit. The time has come to take "life review" out of the "aging closet" and bring it onto the mainstream agenda for all. Life review, to my mind, is much more than a "nice to have" way of keeping older people busy with "something substantial". In fact, as I see it, life review cuts to the core of our spiritual lives, it is a metaphor for a very seminal part of our capacity to develop wisdom.
I am reminded of a personal story that has been with me since the age of 14. Going into 9th grade, my family moved from Queens, NY, out to a small community on Long Island. It was also a move that I looked forward to, leaving my all-Jewish day school to attend public school. I really wanted it to work, and I knew I had one skill that would help me fit in quicker- I was quite adept at basketball. Thus, when I arrived at school, I tried out for the school team and was accepted. I was thoroughly excited until I received notice that nearly all games would be on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, I was an observant Jew who did not drive on the Sabbath and there was no way to get to the games without driving. After a short period of intense deliberation, I told the coach that I would not be able to make the games. He was very forthcoming and suggested that he "talk with the Rabbi" and get a "special dispensation".
I assured him it was not about that. It was a tough decision but I went with my beliefs of that time- no more basketball for me.
When I related this story to a friend from another town a few months later, my friend was clearly shocked- how could I do such a stupid thing, to lose my "entry card to popularity" at school…for religion? As he put it, "Do what most people do, take up religion when you are old and need it, not now when you are active and energetic". I never did forget that comment all these years…
Just as religion is not just for the old, neither is life review. The process of life review is the process of reflection, of the "examined life", in the exact spirit of Plato's view that " The unexamined life is not worth living.” Reflecting on your life, as it unfolds and not only when it is in its "later stages", is a major avenue to the development of wisdom. Sociologist Monika Ardelt believes that individuals develop wisdom as personality characteristics encompassing reflection, compassion, and the pursuit of truth. Life review- or perhaps more correctly "life reviewing"- is a cornerstone of observing, reflecting and amending your ways as you walk further on the path of your life. Calling attention to the narratives that comprise our life helps us become active players in our very own lives, noting the stories that dis-empower us towards stagnation as well as creating those stories that inspire us to grow and evolve. When we are active "life-reviewers" we assume responsibility to get behind the wheel and steer. We might be quite limited in what we can do, but we will never be powerless as life-reviewing keeps us reflective, learning and gaining insights. Life reviewing builds resilience and resilience helps us become more astute life-reviewers on our path.
Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi, is quoted as having asked: "Have you downloaded your life experience for future generations? Have you begun your legacy work?" There is no doubt that life review has great meaning for elders, our later years facilitate a powerful process that can be both healing and inspirational for the younger generations. However, I feel the field is wide open for bringing the spirit and approach of "life reviewing" out of the closet and onto the agenda of younger generations. Life review, which sits at the center of reflection and at the core of the cultivation of wisdom is not something that should be denied the younger generations.
And who is better suited to lead the pack and teach the life-review approach than sage-ing elders? Life review is too important to be relegated to later years, it beckons us to teach the world, even if the "world is" not really sure what it is they need to learn. We need to get life review out of the closest and into the living rooms of us all. Life reviewing will help us all to learn the stories, learn OUR stories and what we can and want to do about them.
"If you don't know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you may be lost in life." - Siberian Elder