2020 Vision

(Zoom Xplore Talk: October 08, 2020)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Those are the words of Charles Dickens, written not in 2020, but in A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, more than 160 years ago. 

In this, our second session of “Life Sentences: Writing for Yourself and Others,” our focus will be on “2020 Vision.”

As we began last week, we talked about a number of things: 

  • The structure of the course, with these Zoom sessions focusing on the WHY of life-writing, and with my Bountiful Journey website (bountifuljourney.ca) providing resource material—the Writing Activities that speak to the WHAT of life-writing and the Writing Craft lessons that consider the HOW.
  • I spent considerable time talking about the nature of on-line learning. I did so because is more than just a safe approach in the midst of the health risks that we now face. These adaptations also provide a good opportunity for those of us who are seniors to continue our learning from the convenience of home. It is a hopeful outcome—and part of our focus today is on stories of hope.
  • At the heart of the first session was my brief reflection on “Good Stories, Meaningful Lives.” Thinking and writing about our lives can lead us to a deeper understanding of who we are and help us to hear the call to meaning, purpose and direction in our elder years.

INTRODUCTIONS: In the interval, many of you have shared your written Introductions and I thank you for doing so. That is one way we can build a sense of community, even when we’re not meeting in-person. In fact, in these written introductions, we might learn more about each other than we could if we just were sitting in the same room. 

Most of you have been willing to include your e-mail addresses. I’m confident we’ll all respect that personal information, but it does allow us to have side conversations as we continue…and perhaps conversations beyond the short time span of this course.

Let me offer a few observations, having read and enjoyed each introduction as it arrived in my e-mail. First, the introductions reflect a rich variety of life experiences. Yet most of us have spent our lives in the service of others: medical careers, church ministry and spiritual direction, growing our food, doing peace mediation, teaching music, and teaching in other ways. Many of us have a sense of “calling” in life.  

Our introductions show a strong interest in travel and in working in international settings. Some of us are dealing with health conditions that are challenging and discomforting, and as a result we are even more mindful of the need to share our stories with those we love.

We have a wide range of writing skills in the class—and that pleases me. It gives us a good mix. Some of us have been told: “You should write a book!” Others of us already have done that…or we are working on one. Exciting!


1) If you took the CMU training session for Zoom, you know that they recommended viewing each session using the Gallery View. Their intent—like mine with the Introductions—was to help build a sense of community. However, there are always exceptions. If you have problems either with eye sight or hearing, as some of us do in our senior years, it may be better for you to use the Speaker View. That will help you to focus on one primary image and watch my lips if that helps with the hearing. 

I will do my best to keep my head up and voice up and my enunciation clear during these sessions. If I fail to do so, I welcome a reminder note. 

2) We still do not have the Slide Share function in Zoom functioning reliability. So as not to create distraction we will not use with this session the slides we had prepared. We will continue to troubleshoot and aim to have that valuable feature available next week.

NOTE RE: DISCUSSION—THE WRITING ACTIVITIES: We took a few minutes to talk about early impressions of the “Life Sentences” Writing Activities (as found on the bountifuljourney.ca website). My main question was: Are you able to connect with any of these activities in a way that motivates you to begin writing about your life experiences or to apply them to a current writing project?


In Session 1 (“Good Stories, Meaningful Lives”) I spoke last week about three purposes in our life-writing:   

  • Writing for discovery (exploring and evaluating who we are at this age and stage of life)
  • Writing for wholeness (integrating our varied experiences and, perhaps, recovering our full sense of identity)
  • Writing for legacy (showing our love and concern for others in the reflections that we share)

Now we’ll place each of these—Discovery, Wholeness, Legacy—in a broader context.

About the time that many of us were born, medical doctors tended to think when older folk talked about their lives, it indicated the onset of senility. I can assure you it does not. We are indebted to the leadership of one doctor in particular, Robert Butler, who looked more closely at the aging process.  Dr. Butler challenged the dismissive attitudes of his colleagues and the “ageism” attitudes in our society. He is now considered to be the “father of geriatric” medicine,

During the past three or four years, I’ve spent considerable time reading in the literature on aging—such writers as Dr. Butler, Erik and Joan Erikson, Daniel Levinson, Paul Tournier, Gail Sheehy, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and others.  In the process of studying dozens of books, I’ve discerned three recurrent tasks for those of us in our elder years:  

  • Evaluation: making an appraisal of our lives and what we’ve learned; gaining perspective and coming to terms with our mortality.
  • Integration: taking knowledge we have gleaned from our experience and using it to become more whole  
  • Communication: “leaving a legacy,” sharing with others the meaning, purpose, values and direction that guide our lives

Each of these three tasks has a corresponding form of life-writing, and those are the ones I’ve identified:

  • Writing for Discovery (EVALUTION)
  • Writing for Wholeness (INTEGRATION)
  • Writing for Legacy (COMMUNICATION)

Given the importance of these three elder tasks, each related approach to writing  will be the focus of one of our next sessions. We start today with “Writing for Discovery.” 

For young people, Writing for Discovery is mostly about looking ahead, asking “Who am I” and “Who am I going to be?”  For us, as older writers, the question changes slightly: “Who am I?” and “Who have I been?”

Of course, we still look forward, with anticipation and pleasure. But now we also are inclined to be look back on our lives, thinking about: 

  • the key turning points we’ve encountered; 
  • the highs and lows we’ve experienced 
  • some of the goals we have met or failed to meet; and, in general,
  • how best to sum up our gift of years.

When we talk of Writing for Discovery in the broader context of Evaluation, just what do we mean by “evaluation”?  As an English teacher, I love researching the meaning and history of words, but for now I’ll control that urge.  If we look at “Evaluation,” we see the root word “value.” That is how dictionaries define it—“to value” or “to assess.”

When we Write to Discover, we are asking questions that assess and value our life experiences:

  • Who am I now? (our elder identity)
  • What am I here for? (our present life purpose)
  • Which of my earlier dreams and goals have I realized? Which ones have I changed as I’ve grown and matured? 
  • What can I learn from my past, from my own life story?
  • What do I still need to learn? And what do I need to unlearn?
  • Am I where I want to be: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically?
  • Are there important things I need to say to specific people? (apologies? words of forgiveness?)
  • Does my present way of life reflect who I am?
  • Have I done all that I really need to do?

These are challenging questions and there are no “easy answers.” 

We can pursue the evaluation-discovery process further using the Writing Activities.

All of the Writing Activities have an element of discovery, but I will highlight four in particular:

  • Life Questions: (In this writing activity, you will find 35 distinct questions, each of which encourages you to assess and value aspects of your life).
  • Living with Gratitude: (We need to make time and find ways to remember all that we have in life to appreciate).
  • How My Mind Has Changed: (Most of us can probably trace a significant amount of change in our religious, political, cultural and other ways of thinking).
  • My Faith Journey: (We may discern different stages in our spiritual development and both outer and inner pathways in our journey of faith).  

If you are interested in life-writing as a means of discovery, a way to assess and value where you now are at, I commend to you these four Writing Activities. Of course, the three types of writing overlap—discovery, wholeness, and legacy—so I’m confident you’ll find “Discovery” in any of the twelve Writing Activities.

2020 VISION  

When we go to an optometrist to have our vision checked, he or she does an evaluation, an assessment. We stare at the Snellen Eye Chart with the large letter “E” at the top and work our way down through rows of letters that get progressively smaller. 

If we can read the eighth line we are told we have “20/20 vision.” That doesn’t mean our vision is perfect, but it is good. At a distance of 20 feet, we can see objects clearly.

Some of us wear glasses—corrective lenses. Possibly you, like me, have worn them most of your life as a necessary means of bringing the world into clear focus. I would like to reflect now on our society’s need for a corrective lens, a way to bring the world back into a clear focus.

If we can think back just nine months, to the beginning of this year, we were seeing in the New Year in our customary ways. For at least some of us, it probably began with keen anticipations, perhaps articulated as annual resolutions and wishes to family and friends for happiness and good health. If we heard anything about the coronavirus, it seemed a minor news story in a distant part of China. 

The national news media offered its usual slate of predictions, with one (NBC) declaring that “2020 will be an awesome year.” 

  • There was a line up of new movies everyone would be attending
  • In New York, the Broadway theatre scene would be bustling. 
  • Tokyo would host the summer Olympic games
  • Full employment in the developed world would continue, and 
  • Oil prices would rise. 

Chances of a major shocking event were estimated to be low.  As one network (CNN) said: “We are the masters of our own destiny. Let’s get to it.”

We know, of course, that the reality has been different. Starting in mid-March, we’ve lived through the “First Wave” of Covid-19. I needn’t repeat the statistics. Perhaps we’d rather forget them than remember them. Likely, we’ve felt overwhelmed by some of it. And now we are wondering how severe the “Second Wave” will be, especially if it arrives together with our annual flu season (as a “Twindemic”). 

Instead of being “masters of our own destiny,” we’ve lived with a sense of uncertainty, unpredictability, and vulnerability.  On September 23rd, Prime Minister Trudeau spoke to Canadians about the pandemic and other matters. Afterwards, a CBC news commentator (Rosemary Barton) looked ahead to the possibility of a fall election. It seemed unlikely, she said, but “It’s 2020. Anything could happen.”

Indeed, our 2020 news has been filled with dire reports: besides the pandemic, there have been hurricanes, floods, massive forest fires on the West Coast, violent social protests, and a divisive electoral campaign south of the border.  Instead of 2020 being recalled as “an awesome year,” people now are speaking of it as “Annus Horribilis”—the horrible year. There are even tee-shirts with those words. And I have seen one Facebook sign saying, “I’m not turning my clock back on November 1st. None of us needs an extra hour of 2020.”

We might smile at the humour, but we need to respond to the sense of frustration and distress. In times like these there is a need for our elder perspective and the wisdom that we can share—in writing—from our life experience.  Without question, we are living through a historic time. This pandemic experience is new to us, but by our age we likely have experienced other crises, other times when the future seemed dark and the outcome uncertain.

I am grateful for our modern-day communications, but sometimes I think our media accentuates the problem. Some news editors say, “Good news is no news.” With the 24 / 7 always-on news cycle, we constantly are reminded of something going wrong somewhere. If we are not careful, we can get caught up in all the anxiety, anger, and fear. 

When our course is finished, I’ll resume work helping a friend with his memoir. He’s a decade older than me and his childhood memories are of living in London during the W.W. II Blitz, with Luftwaffe bombs blowing the neighbourhoods to bits and children huddled with their mothers in fall-out shelters, singing “There’ll Always Be an England.”

Out of that time came the stoic mantra: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s easier said than done, but as older folks, we do know something about that.  We have been through other horrible times. We know how it feels to look ahead, facing great uncertainty.

I’ll suggest this morning that, as we think back over our lives and write about our experiences, part of our task is to identify and to share stories of hope. When Queen Elizabeth spoke to us in April, in the midst of the pandemic “first wave,” she recalled her first radio broadcast in 1940, speaking to assure English children such as the friend I’ve described. Our current challenge, she said in April, is not one of warring nations. It is a health crisis where nations “across the globe” are joining together “in common endeavour.” She said: “While we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.” That is a message of hope.

On March 23, however, Ms. Weiland spoke on “The Power of Hopeful Stories in a Stressful Time.” I have found her reflections to be both helpful and inspiring. I’ll comment on them here and I have posted a summary of her article on our website 

In her piece, Weiland urges writers to consider the moral question: “What is your story putting into the world?” She reminds writers—of all ages—that our world now “is challenged and stretched in ways it certainly has never been in our lifetimes,” and that we bear responsibility for providing hopeful stories.

She does not suggest that we gloss over “the anxiety, fear, loneliness, despair, and uncertainty of our lives,” but contends that our stories need to be “more than a catharsis of our own difficult feelings.” “It’s not enough to diagnose humanity’s illnesses,” she says. “We must find ways to rise above them.” 

I can’t think of a group more able to do that than yourselves. Out of the conflicts you’ve faced, the difficulties you’ve struggled with, perhaps the traumas you’ve experienced or bouts of depression you’ve coped with, you understand what it means to be a beacon of hope pointing not just to the stars…but to the Maker of Stars.

K.M. Weiland suggests five types of stories “that have the potential to create positive change in a positive way.” 

1) Stories of Goodheartedness rather than Contempt.

We live in a society saturated with contempt. Can we find in our own life stories the inspiration of kindness, generosity, cheerfulness, and even self-sacrifice?

2) Stories of Faith rather than Cynicism.

Cynicism seems to be the realistic stance. “Nice guys finish last,” we say, as if that were a proven truth.  “People don’t need help being cynical,” Ms. Weiland writes.”They do need help keeping faith—in themselves, in each other, and in something bigger.” Can we share stories that provide such inspiration?

3) Stories of Substance rather than Shallowness

Often we are lured to immerse ourselves in stories that have little lasting value, short-term entertainments that have little real meaning. Can we search our hearts and our life experiences for stories that offer “transformative truth”?

4) Stories of Brightness rather than Darkness

Sections of our bookstores are filled with “dark fiction”—it’s the ‘in’ thing. Weiland admits she enjoys some of it, but calls for stories that do more than take the reader “all the way down to the bottom of the pit of despair.” They also need to throw a rope. 

Drawing on our own life experiences, can we speak to the good to be found in our world?

5) Stories of Hope rather than Despair

How many people have you heard say they don’t listen to the news anymore because it seems too depressing? Stories of despair, like cynical ones, may pose as realism. They may reflect the madness of our social environment, but they do not carry the touch of creative order. 

We often hear the words of Shakespeare, quoted from his great tragedy Macbeth:
Life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That is the voice of despair.  We do well to remember that Shakespeare’s own view is reflected in the words of another character: “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.”

If I can paraphrase those eloquent words: Even in the face of loss and disorder, there is a transcendent order and beauty,

“We don’t need any reminders to despair,” Ms. Weiland advises us.”But we do need to be reminded—the more often, the better—to hope.” And hope is “not some namby-pamby good feeling.” It is difficult, it is ferocious, it is courageous. 

Barack Obama, in his 2006 memoir, spoke of “the audacity of hope.”  It is the bold choice, not the easy one.

“It is the worst of times, it is the best of times…”  It is 2020.

As we observe the present and recall and write about our past life experiences, I trust that at least some of them will be “Stories of Hope.” The Bible says (Prov. 29:18), “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”   May each of us offer to the world a corrective “2020 Vision,” one of hopeful lives and of hope-filled stories.”

NOTE RE: DISCUSSION—STORIES OF HOPE: We concluded our “2020 Vision” session with a discussion about Ms. Weiland’s “stories of hope” suggestions and of other related writing concerns.

NEXT STEPS: I am not making formal assignments, week by week. I encourage you to be self-directed. But if you are wondering about a “next step,” I offer these recommendations:

1) If you’ve not done much writing before, I encourage you to explore one of the “Discovery” options in the Writing Activities. 

  • For myself, I return time and again to the “Life Questions.” The very first question—the one about our given name—is worth ongoing reflection. Someone chose it for us and it has shaped our identity. Advertisers say that for each of us the two most important words in the English language are our first and last names. It can be a good place to begin one’s life writing.

2) If you currently are working on a writing project, or actively planning one, I invite you to choose one of the major moments. Using the suggestions offered in the Writing Lesson on Scenes and Summary, begin to work on that major moment in your story as a scene with a connecting summary. 

  • What can you show your readers—through character actions, through dialogue, through description, through the struggle with conflict?

3) I encourage all of us to think about our Stories of Hope and how we can share them.

Thank you. Take care and stay well.