Restorying Our Lives

(Zoom Xplore Talk: October 22, 2020)

We’ve enjoyed sunshine and blue skies during much of the past week, and I am grateful that we did not see the snow flurries forecast for last weekend. Our first snow fall came on Tuesday. Here in Manitoba we have passed without repetition the anniversary of 2019’s harsh snowstorm. 

We talked last week about “Conflict” and one of the traditional categories is our “conflict with nature.” That storm last year was a memorable one—thousands of trees were damaged or destroyed and about a quarter of a million of us were without power for hours or even days. We might see a storm before this “Life Sentences” course concludes in November, but meeting on-line we should not have to worry about icy road conditions and the safety of our travel.

Two weeks ago, in our “2020 Vision” session, I noted that those who study healthy aging identify three primary tasks for those of us in our elder years:

  • Evaluation
  • Integration
  • Communication

I also noted that each of these tasks has a related type of writing:

  • Writing for Discovery
  • Writing for Wholeness
  • Writing for Legacy

We have talked already about “Writing for Discovery” and now we will turn our attention to “Writing for Wholeness.” Next week, we will consider “Writing for Legacy,” which probably is what most people have in mind when they talk about life writing. As you know, I’ve chosen to broaden our consideration to include writing for ourselves as well as writing for others. Both are important.

The week before our sessions started on October 1st I had a conversation with local computer salesman, and he remarked that he did not “want to live in a first-draft world.” What he had in mind was the limited thought and poor writing that characterizes so many Internet responses—the Twitter tirades and all the angry comments in response to news postings. I sympathized, though I rarely read either of those. Yet the man’s statement about living in a “first-draft world” stayed in mind for me, because I was thinking about “The Writing Process” and I realized that our lives, too, can be viewed as a Process.

The eminent American psychologist Carl Rogers said: “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” If we think of our personal life as a process, we may feel that the first draft of our story sometimes falls short of expectations. We make mistakes and we digress from how we intended to express ourselves. We may get “frozen” in a particular role and need “anti-freeze” to get going again. 

I am reminded of the wonderful play and movie by Horton Foote called “The Trip to Bountiful.” We will talk next week about the main character—Mother Carrie Watts. The antagonist in the story is her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, a woman who is very stuck in her ways and who has a sharp tongue. “I’m just plain spoken,” she says at one point. “That’s the way I am. You just have to take me or leave me.” She’s the kind of person who dishes it out, but can’t take it in return. She’s not growth-oriented. She’s always convinced that she’s right and she has a “My-way-or-the-highway” personality. 

Likely most of us have met characters like that. And when we recall our life experiences, we may have to write about them. 

Last week, we talked about conflict, and I would like to return to that topic briefly. You may recall that I said, “No conflict = No story.” Every good story has conflict and if we avoid it our stories lose interest and value. 

The traditional description of conflict identifies five kinds:

  • conflict with another person
    • That’s the kind we’ve just been describing—e.g. Jessie Mae Watts with her mother-in-law and with most other people in her life; I think we’re all experienced enough to know how common and frequent this kind of conflict is.
  • conflict with nature
    • I mentioned that in terms of last fall’s early snow storm. Our news is filled with stories of floods, fires, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and so on. 
    • Conflict with nature also includes the pandemic we now are living through. 

And it certainly includes physical challenges we encounter as we age. Some of us have faced with courage and resilience disabling illnesses and events.

  • conflict with society
    • For Mennonites, their commitment to peaceable living and their conscientious objection to war has at times put them at odds with their society.
    • In our current news, we see social protests on behalf of indigenous people, people of colour, and those of other faith traditions.
  • conflict with self
    • Throughout our lives we face inner conflicts and, as we age, certain ones may become more present: grief, as we lose friends and loved ones; loneliness, fear, anxiety, anger and frustration. And, of course, depression, which is the most common mental health issue for those of us who are older.
  • conflict with God / fate / destiny
    • Many of us, by our age, have reached a stage of contentment and peaceful acceptance of the Divine Mystery and questions that cannot be answered. Yet our story of faith might well recall earlier existential doubts, our journey through the Valley of the Shadow, and our dark nights of the soul.

As we recall our own life experiences, it is good to be aware of these different kinds of conflict. But my main reason for returning to this topic of conflict has to do with its resolution. Often you will hear writers and readers talking about the structure of a story and they mention the Climax and the Resolution. 

The Climax, as we now understand it, is simply the highest moment of conflict, the moment when the main character either meets the need, achieves the goal, or satisfies the desire…or fails to do so. The Resolution is the final outcome, usually the last few pages of the story.

Some of you have worked quite directly with Conflict Resolution and you are more expert than I in its real-life application. But if every story has conflict and if we learn from those stories—including our life stories—I think all of us should think more about how it is resolved.

One well known model suggests five styles of handling conflict:

1) Withdrawal: Getting Out

  • stepping away from the issues
  • giving up personal goals and relationships
  • often there is a sense of helplessness, a belief that it’s easier to avoid the conflict than to face it

2) Accommodation: Giving In

  • satisfying the other party’s demands at the expense of one’s own
  • giving up personal goals to preserve the relationship
  • stems from a desire to smooth over the conflict and preserve harmony

3) Domination: Getting One’s Way

  • satisfying one’s own needs, goals or desires at the expense of others
  • giving up relationships to achieve goals
  • sometimes described as “win-lose” approach, or “zero-sum” thinking
  • “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance
  • often associated with bullying behaviour; “might makes right”
  • the current “Art of the Deal” rhetoric

4) Compromise: Getting Some, Giving Some

  • seeks a middle ground in which each side gains something
  • both parties give up part of their goals
  • the solution satisfies in part but not completely

5) Collaboration: Getting It Together 

  • seeks a solution that satisfies both one’s own goals and that of other party
  • aims to achieve goals of both parties and to preserve the relationship
  • conflict seen as way to improve relationship by reducing tensions
  • “None of us has a corner on truth” stance
  • sometimes described as “win-win” approach, or “positive sum” thinking

So, considering these five styles, what do they look like when we consider the conflicts depicted in our own life stories and the ways we have resolved them? When I look back, especially on my earlier years, I see quite a bit of Withdrawal and of Accommodation.  Often I didn’t know how to manage the conflict, so I simply avoided it. I stepped away, giving up on what I might have contributed and thinking it was virtuous not to fight. Or, I gave in, accommodating another person who insisted their way was the only right one. I justified it in terms of “keeping the peace.”

In the approach to conflict put forward by our culture and media, we see mostly stories of domination. “We didn’t give up and we didn’t give in, and we got our own way.” We call it “persistence” rather than bullying and we don’t worry much about the “losers”—or what we’ve lost in the process.

Compromise is not in good odour these days. Consider some of the poster slogans we see:

  • “Compromise is a dirty word.”
  • “Whenever you start compromising, it’s game over!”
  • “Compromise is an agreement between two fools.”
  • “Compromise is an agreement where both parties get what neither of them wanted.”
  • “Only the weak man urges compromise.” 
  • “We’ll compromise: I’ll get my way and you’ll find a way to be okay with that.” (That’s not compromise—that’s Domination expecting Accommodation).

Fortunately, there are other—wiser—views including that of Nelson Mandela who said that when one negotiates, one must be prepared to compromise.

The Gold Standard of dealing with conflict is Collaboration—a relationship-building approach that entails effective listening; understanding of different perspectives as well as careful articulation of one’s own; and focusing on issues and ideas, not on personalities.

I raise these here because I think an important part of Writing for Wholeness is understanding how we have dealt with the conflict in our lives and sharing that with others—especially those who are younger—what we have learned about managing and resolving conflict.

Now, again, these various strategies tend to refer to the external conflicts in our lives, and likely we’ve known plenty of that. What about resolving the internal conflicts that we struggle with? Our conflicts with ourselves—the moral, religious, political, spiritual and existential concerns that we wrestle with?  For this, let me turn our attention back to those three Elder tasks we’ve talked about: Evaluation, Integration, and Communication. In the “2020 Vision” session, we considered Evaluation and Writing for Discovery. Now we shift our attention to Integration and Writing for Wholeness. 

One of the 20th-century giants in the field of psychology was Erik Erikson, who studied the human life cycle, our ongoing development as human beings from childhood through adulthood and into old age. Looking back, most of us can identify certain phases or stages that we’ve gone through along the way. As we noted when talking about Character Arc, we likely are not the same person we were in our childhood, teens or even early adulthood. Our experiences and learning have changed us; we’ve grown—physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually. 

Based on his research and studies, Dr. Erikson identified eight stages he felt we go through in our development, each one having a tension and a task. For our purposes, I’m only going to refer to the last two, the ones dealing with middle age and our senior years. The middle-age stage Erikson called “Generativity vs. Stagnation.” In this stage of life, we are focused on working, meaningfully and productively, in ways that contribute to society.  We are seeking to grow and to aid the growth of others, as we raise our children, mentor others, and volunteer in a variety of ways. In this stage, if we don’t feel that we are succeeding, that we are making our mark, we may experience “stagnation”—which leads to frustration and deep disappointment.

The eighth stage, the one for those of us in our mid-60s and older, Erikson called “Integrity vs. Despair.” The focus now is not on productivity, but on taking stock of one’s accomplishments, on integrating all that we have gleaned from the previous stages and gaining a sense of completeness and closure. This stage can give us a sense of continuity, of connecting together the first and second and third acts in our life’s drama. 

We may feel that we are fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle into a satisfying picture, perhaps one larger and more interesting than we had anticipated in our youth. 

On the other hand, if we do not go forward in this stage with Integration, we may struggle with guilt, disappointment, even depression. We may feel our life has fallen short of expectations, that we have wasted precious opportunities and that everything would be better if only we could’ve or would’ve done things differently.

One of the reasons I’ve become passionate about life writing is that I’m convinced it can help us to achieve the Integration and Wholeness that Dr. Erikson talked about, rather than the Despair and Hopelessness he warned of.  You may recall that in Session 1 I mentioned “learning by story,” that we learn most effectively by situating our lives in a meaningful and coherent story. That’s why I think it’s so important that our life stories show some of what we’ve learned about resolving conflict. I think we can speak not just of “learning by story,” but of “learning by our story.” We learn from it and others can too. 

Four Stages in Writing for Wholeness

With that in mind, I’m going to suggest Four Stages in Writing for Wholeness, writing that helps us to integrate our lives and bring us a sense of completion and closure.

COLLECTION: The first stage is Collection, the gathering together our memories of our experiences and significant life events. It’s like the Brainstorming stage in the Writing Process. Collection is what the Writing Activities on the Bountiful Journey website aim to promote. And a number of you don’t need any prompting. You are actively gathering your memories, recording them, and already sharing them.

Another name I might give this first stage is Catharsis—that’s an ancient term with a respectable history. The early Greek playwrights felt that their stories evoked strong emotions and helped viewers to purge their anxiety, fear and terror. The idea continues today in modern Talk-Therapies. 

We also can use journals, diaries, free-writing and expressive writing to purge ourselves of some of the emotions we’ve repressed. Such writing is messy, intimate, personal and private. It’s a time of self-disclosure. 

  • We may talk to the page about our hurts and pain, our doubts and deepest questions. 
  • We may speak out of our brokenness, pouring out words of grief, anger, fear, anxiety, jealousy. 
  • We may confess our sense of inadequacy of rejection, of betrayal, of despair. 
  • We may write of what we know and don’t know, trying to break out of a long-held ‘silence’ and give words to the ‘difficult’ experiences and memories.

This is not the writing we share with our children, grandchildren or friends. But it can be therapeutic. It can be transformational. It is used effectively with people who are coming to terms with trauma and emotions that disrupt their lives. It can be the “anti-freeze” that releases us from our frozen state.

Of course, our Collection of memories can be much broader and happier than these aspects, but I have focused here on the cathartic to get a sense of the inner conflict that is part of our lives. 

CLARITY: The second stage in Writing for Wholeness is Clarity. In our conversations, several of you already have mentioned how you’ve found writing to be a means to greater clarity. In part, this may come because in the act of writing, we are translating our feelings and ideas from images into words and that is a step toward detachment that helps us to better understand the reality.  As well, we now are approaching our memories in a new role. We are not just the main character or the narrator. We also are the first reader, and that too is a helpful step toward detachment.

When we turn on the water tap, most of us likely don’t think about where the water has come from or how it has been prepared for us; unless we’re advised otherwise, we assume that it is safe to drink, cook with and bathe in. I try not to take its clarity for granted.  When I was young, my father sold his Minnesota farm and took a job with the City of Fargo in North Dakota, working at the water filtration plant. I grew up seeing the effort that was required to turn the muddy water from the Red River into something drinkable. It started, of course, with collection and some of what came into the plant was as unsightly as the confessions I might put in my journal. And then it went through detailed clarification process. 

Like our water, our memories and feelings need to go through “clarification”—to be screened, sifted, coagulated, and filtered—so they can serve us in new, healthy ways. Talk can be a clarifier, especially if we have a listener who is skilled and can give feedback (as therapists are trained to do).

This Clarity stage can have many steps. One is to separate our unique life story from those that compete with it and muddy it with other goals or desires. The steps toward detachment help us to come to terms with our raw emotions. In time, we may gain fresh perspectives, new ways of seeing our circumstances.  We may even see ways to change our story. “Change your story, change your life,” says Lori Gottlieb, a well-known therapist and author.  Gottlieb suggests that, with wise compassion and the right tools, we can edit our inner conflicts and create alternative narratives where we play the hero and not the victim.

Clarity Questions     

COHERENCE: Coherence is the third stage in Writing for Wholeness. 

When we have collected a diverse array of memories and, through reflection, gained some clarity and detachment, we need to organize them in ways that give us meaning, purpose and direction for our final years. 

We need to bring together the many pieces and fragments in an account that embraces our past as a life well-lived and looks to a future that is hopeful and fulfilling. Gary Kenyon and William Randall, in a profound book entitled Restorying Our Lives, write: “There is a call within us toward a life story that is progressively bigger and better, more embracing of our actual experience“ (142). 

Coherence Questions

CONGRUENCE: The fourth and final stage in Writing for Wholeness is Congruence. This, too, is part of “restorying our lives,” but our concern now is not just to find unity in the various stages of our personal development, but also to connect us to our society, to our times, and to the Transcendent. Each of us has a national identity, though it may derive from several places in the world.  My wife Myra is a blend of her upbringing in India, her parental heritage in the United States, and our decades of living here in Canada. Even if we’ve always lived in one country, we may have lived in different locales and been shaped by the people, culture and history of those places. 

Our story also is shaped by the times in which we lived. I’m sometimes disappointed when I read personal accounts and there is no mention of major historical events. 

  • Can we really talk about the start of the new millennium with no mention of our personal experience of the 9 / 11 destruction? As a teacher, I spent considerable time assuring students during the uncertainties of the 1990 Gulf War. 
  • And that event reminded me of October 1962, the Cuban Missile crisis. I was then a high-school student, in Grade 10 history class when our school principal announced that in thirty minutes a nuclear war begin between Russian and the U.S. (That’s a chapter in my life I call: “I Don’t Want to Die with Mr. Benson.”) The principal advised us that in the event our city was hit by missiles, we should seek protection by crawling under our desks.  Even to a young person, the absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction as a way of solving international conflict seemed abundantly clear. 

With Congruence in mind, I encourage you to think of writing about both your life and times. In the Writing Activities, you will find some guidance in the Life Questions (Question 32: The Impact of History).

Yet another aspect of Congruence may be the most important: How do we connect our life to that which is larger, to our sense of the Transcendent? 

By the time he was in his early 90’s, Erik Erikson had published over a dozen books. The final one was an extended version of The Life Cycle Completed. Both his writing and his life were nearly complete. The book articulates the eight stages of human development that I referred to earlier. 

Yet, with Erik’s consent, his wife Joan and long-time research partner added another stage: Gerotranscendence.  For this final stage of maturation, Joan Erikson drew on the work of Lars Tornstam of Uppsala Universitat in Sweden. Quoting Tornstam, Erikson contended that the gerotranscendent individual “experiences a new feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, a redefinition of time, space, life and death, and a redefinition of the self” (124). 

In our Christian faith tradition, this story of transcendence begins, appropriately, with God creating order out of chaos. As we hover over ‘the Deep’ in our own lives, and seek to bring good order to our memories, it is fitting that we connect our story to one much larger. That is why I’ve included in the Writing Activities not one but two ways to approach the account of our faith.

So, recalling that conversation with my salesman friend, I agree that we don’t have to remain stuck in a first-draft world. The process of our lives allows for revision. We can learn from the conflicts in our lives and seek resolutions that lead to satisfaction and improved relationships. We can approach our inner conflicts determined to integrate all that we have experienced and learned. 

We can explore these four stages in Writing for Wholeness: Collection, Clarity, Cohesion, and Congruence. We can “listen to our lives,”  as writer Frederick Buechner says, and then “restory” them, constructing coherent accounts that give us renewed meaning, purpose and direction and that bring an order congruent with the larger stories of our society, our times, and our faith tradition.

Take care and stay well.

Extending the Learning