Life Questions

This list of life questions originated in conversation with an older brother-in-law who was reflecting on his life and experiences. Over time, I added further questions, some as I prepared for a workshop presentation at a large family gathering. These questions serve as a guide for me as well as others. If you note important questions as yet unasked, please share them with me. 

I invite you to respond to one or more of the following questions about your life. If you are comfortable, read them to family members and friends. In the discussion that follows, you may find more good memories and thoughts to add.

1) Your Name:

  • What is your name (first, middle, last)—How / Why was it given (if you know)?
  • What influence has it had on your life?
  • (Had you chosen your own name, rather than having been given it, which name[s] might you have desired? Why does this name (or names) appeal to you?
  • Have you had any nicknames? How did you acquire them? Why?

2) Personal Impressions: 

When you reflect on your own character…

  • When people meet you for the first time, what do you think they notice immediately?
  • Which five distinct words would you use to describe yourself? (e.g. inquisitive, hard-working, easy-going, an eager learner, etc.)
  • Why have you chosen each of the words in the above list?

3) Who I Am Now:

Imagine that you could go to a comprehensive Dictionary of Biography, look up your name and find a “definition” that helped you to understand who you are. It would be a significant step in discerning the meaning of your life. As we seek to make sense of our life—to find its “meaning”—we essentially answer two questions: “Who am I?” (identity) and “What am I doing?” (activities). This reflection activity explores the first question: Who am I now, in this stage of life?

Let me suggest one restriction—please make only one reference to your “work” (gainful employment or other). People who have a physical illness often say, “I am not defined by this.” Nor should we be defined by our work, past or present.

Think instead about who you are in such terms as family relationships, provincial or national identity, political perspectives, recreational interests, faith outlook, eating preferences…and so on.

Create five (or more) “I am…” statements that describe who you are (with no more than one reference to your job or career, present or past).


  • “I am a son, a husband, an in-law, a brother, an uncle / great uncle, and a devoted friend, cherishing the bonds that draw me closer in each relationship.”
  • “I am a dreamer. Usually I’m preoccupied with the many projects on my list. They continue to excite me and they give me a strong reason to get up each morning.”

4) Questions of Being: How has your identity (who you are) been shaped by:

  • Being the oldest child? a middle child? the youngest child? 
  • (birth order is considered to be a major determinant of personality)
  • Being a ____________? 
  • (your main occupation: e.g. farmer, teacher, housewife, carpenter, salesperson, etc.)?
  • Being a ____________? 
  • (your religious denomination: e.g. Mennonite, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, “spiritual but not religious” etc.)
  • Being a Canadian? (American, British, or whichever nationality you claim)
  • Being a native of  ____________? (The province or state where you have lived longest: e.g. Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. etc. Or, Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.)
  • Being a member of a particular generation—e.g. the “Lost” generation, WW II generation, Baby Boomer generation, the Me generation, the Hip Hop generation, etc. (By what name do you prefer to identify your generation? In what ways do you fit into this generation? How have the experiences of your generation shaped who you are?)

5) Strengths / Weaknesses: 

  • What strengths have sustained you through the years? Which do you consider to be your greatest strengths or your most significant abilities?
  • What weaknesses have you sought to overcome? Which do you consider to be your major weaknesses?

6) Your Friends: (in the different stages of your life):

  • Who were your best friends?
  • How did the friendship begin? 
  • What did you most like to do together? 
  • How did this friendship contribute to who you are?
  • What mentors (if any) have you found along life’s journey and what are the main things they taught you?

7) The Timeline of Your Life

In the ebb and flow of our days, one can seem very much like the next. Yet looking back, we often can discern stages that we call by familiar names—e.g. childhood, middle age, retirement years. As you look back on your life so far, this writing activity invites you to write about any or all of these stages:

  • Childhood —When and where did you spend your childhood? What memories do you have of your life and family at this time? 
  • Teen Years — Where did you live in your teen years? Where did you attend school? How did you spend your “spare” time?  What were your first job experiences? What hopes and plans did you have for the future?
  • Early Adulthood— When did you leave home permanently? When did you begin to feel that you really were an adult? What job or jobs did you have during this period?
  • Marriage — How did you meet your spouse or partner? What memories do you have of your relationship as it progressed from dating to a more serious commitment? When did you marry? Where did you go for your “honeymoon”? What qualities did you admire in your partner? Which interests did you share? If your marriage has continued, what contributed most to its success? If it has not lasted, what do you feel went wrong?
  • Starting a Family and Parenting— When were your children born? How did you choose each of your children’s names? What were some of the challenges you faced as a parent? What did you most like to do together as a family?  Which were your easiest and hardest years as a parent? If you have not married or raised a family, what were the circumstances? If married, why did you choose not to have children? If single, what have been the challenges and opportunities that you have encountered?
  • Middle Adult Years—Where did you live and work during these years? What did you feel were your priorities during these years? What were your worries and fears? Were you involved in your community or church? Who were your closest friends and the significant people in your life? 
  • Being a Grandparent—What are your grandchildren’s names and where do they live? How did you feel when you first learned you were a grandparent? How are you involved with your grandchildren? What do you find satisfying about being a grandparent? What have you learned about your children, now that you see them as parents? What advice would you now offer, if asked, about parenting? How would you like your grandchildren to remember you?
  • Later Adult Years—Have you retired from the job that characterized much of your working life? If so, when did you retire and what do you now do with your time? How do you now spend a weekday or a weekend? How would you say your are different from who you were ten or twenty years ago? With which family members are you in close touch? As you look back, which issues have concerned you most over the years? Which current issues most interest or concern you? 
  • Anticipating the Future— As you look to the years still ahead, which activities do you hope to continue? What experiences do you still hope to include? Which projects or tasks do you still desire to finish? 

8) Milestones / Marker Events: 

The term “milestone” (from the Latin miliarium) was coined in Britain in 1746 to describe the practice of marking distances to a particular location. The original Roman markers, which often provided additional information: e.g. the name of the Emperor, when a section of road was built, who paid for it, and so on. Today the figurative meaning of “milestone” suggests that additional information that chronicles significant events and big changes in our lives.

  • Which events or achievements have been big milestones in your life—e.g. graduations, weddings, birth of children, job changes, etc.
  • Which other important markers do you now recall with special feelings—e.g. special awards or recognitions, health crises, the illness or deaths of friends or family members, etc. 

9) Key Decisions: It is estimated that in any given day, each of us makes over a thousand decisions. Yet in the course of our lifetime, there are probably three or four decisions that shape our destiny.

  • For you, what have been those three or four decisions?
  • What was the specific cause leading up to each decision?
  • What were the more general causes leading up to it?
  • What were the long-term consequences of each decision?

10) Conflicts: While most of us prefer to avoid conflict, often is is a part of our life. Sometimes it is the conflict that makes our life interesting. Novelists tell us that without conflict there is no story. 

  • What have been some of the major conflicts that you have encountered in your life?
  • What were the circumstances? 
  • What did you do? 
  • Why did you feel so deeply or care so much? 
  • What was the outcome—short-term? long-term?
  • In retrospect, is there anything that you would do differently?

11) Your Earliest Memories: The earliest memories of most people date back to the age of three or four. Yet these memories are not abundant; most of our early recollections fade because they predate important brain development and our acquisition of language. Although most of our earliest memories have faded, those that linger are worth recalling and recording. They may give us a sense of continuity in time and provide coherence in our sense of self.

  • For you, what memories linger as you think back to early childhood?
  • Do they relate to a particular place, to an experience or event, to a certain activity?
  • What emotions do you associate with this memory—sadness, fear, happiness, anger, other?
  • Why do you think these particular memories have remained? 
  • Do you sense any influence they may have had on your subsequent experiences or emotional development? 

12) School, Training, and Your Memories of Learning (e.g. elementary school, high school, college or university, master’s or doctoral studies, special training or workshops).

  • Where did you attend school? 
  • What was the furthest you progressed? (grade level, degrees or certificates earned, etc.)
  • Who were your best or favourite teachers?
  • What do you remember learning? (Which subjects seemed fun? Which ones seemed difficult?) 

If you were speaking today to students at your alma mater (high school, college, university), what advice might you offer to assist them in their life journey?

Is there anything you wish you had known upon leaving school that would have enhanced your pursuit of success?  How have you learned this or become aware of this?

13) Your Work: 

  • List and identify your early jobs in life. How have these early work experiences shaped your view toward work later in life?
  • What has been your main work in life?
  • Had you sought another kind of work (or had other opportunities), what might you have chosen?
  • Much of our identity is shaped by the work we do (including the work of stay-at-home parents).  What have you learned in the work place, either from the job itself or from interaction with your colleagues?  What have you learned about dealing with change and stress?

14) Special Causes / Projects: 

  • To which special causes or projects (if any) are you committed, ones that are outside yourself and larger than yourself?
  • What has attracted you to this particular cause or project? How did you first get involved?
  • What have you learned from this involvement? In what ways (if any) has it contributed to your personal growth? 

15) What Is Especially Important to You?

  • It has been said that “The most important things in life aren’t things.” As you reflect on your life, what do you regard as “most important” (e.g. family; work or community service; stability and financial security; religious, political, or philosophical commitments, etc.)?
  • Why do you regard this (or these) aspect(s) as important?

16) Memorable Quotations / Verses

  • Which are your favourite quotations, poetic verses and / or Bible passages? 
  • Why is each of these quotations, verses or passages especially meaningful to you?

[Note: This Life Question also is available as an individual writing activity, with fuller guidelines and suggestions provided. See “Sentences That Give Life.” ]

17) The Effects of Adversity: Most of us encounter setbacks or some kind of mishaps in our lives (e.g. major illness, loss of a job, failure of a business, death of someone close, etc.

  • What adversity have you faced? 
  • How did this experience affect you? 
  • What were the long-term consequences? Did it change, in any way, the direction of your life? If you experienced a permanent loss or limitation, did your way of compensating become a strength?

18) Mistakes: 

  • Can you recall two big mistakes you’ve made during your lifetime, or things you would have done differently if you could “go back and do it over again”?
  • How did each mistake occur? What were the immediate and / or long-term consequences?
  • What, if anything, would you say you have learned as a result of making this mistake?

19) Your Travels: 

  • Do you enjoy travel—seeing other parts of your state, of your country, of the world?
  • Where have you traveled and what have you seen?
  • What do you enjoy most about travel?
  • What advice would you offer to others who plan to do similar travel?
  • What experiences have taught you the importance of that advice?

[Note: This Life Question also is available as an individual writing activity, with fuller guidelines and suggestions provided. See “Travel Narrative.” ]

20) Your Sense of Place

We live in a highly mobile society and spend considerable time using mobile devices. It is easy to feel disconnected from the physical world around us. Yet our identity is closely related to our sense of place, however difficult it may seem to describe the connection. 

Use some or all of the prompts below to create a place-based biography for yourself, one that depicts how you connect to specific places in the world around you.

  • Identify two or three places that are special to you in your life. How long did you live in each of these places? What attachments did you feel to each place?
  • What are the main things that you remember about each place? What makes it memorable for you?
  • If you have lived in one place or region most of your life, how do you feel it has shaped who you are? What do you appreciate about this place that a newcomer might not yet notice?
  • If you have lived in a number of locales, as many of us have, how has one place differed from another? What influence have those differing characteristics had on you?Why did you leave this particular place and how did you feel about the move? Did you have any sense of loss…or gain?
  • Do you recall special hiking trails or canoe routes? Do you think back to favourite vacation or camping spots?
  • As you think about the respective places, what memories and feelings do you have about the geographical features (e.g. flat, hilly, forested, open, spacious, closed in), about the weather, about the changing seasons, about the residents and wildlife and predominant vegetation? 
  • Is there anything in a particular place that awakens in you what Dr. Albert Schweitzer called “Reverence for Life”?

Using these memories, write at least a short place-based memoir.

21) Your Music Preferences:

  • What kinds of music do you enjoy? 
  • When and how did you learn to like this music? 
  • What favourite songs do you recall? 

22) Your Reading Preferences:

  • Are you a reader? 
  • If so, what kinds of books or stories do you especially enjoy? 
  • If not, what have been your experiences with books and the expectations of those friends and acquaintances who “love to read”?

23) Pets in Your Life: We do not need to read stories of people being buried in pet cemeteries to appreciate the heart-felt bonds many of us have for domestic animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, fish, and other creatures. In First-World countries, animals are kept not so much for their utility (protecting livestock, hunting mice), but because they provide companionship and meaningful relationships. They are pictured in family photo albums and mentioned in annual Christmas letters. As children, we often learn caregiving responsibilities by looking after pets. Often our first experience of grief comes when a pet dies or is lost.

  • As you think back over your life, what kinds of pets have you known? 
  • What special memories do you have particular pets? How did they come into your life? What was your experience in your relationship with this animal? 
  • What, if anything, would you say you learned in your interactions with this pet?

24) Your Memorable Dreams: Most of us dream each night, but by morning forget what the dreams were about. A few dreams, however, make a powerful impression and we can still remember them years later. 

  • Which memorable dreams do you recall? Why do you think these dreams lingered?

25) Memorable Moments

  • All of us have embarrassing moments, ones that allow us to laugh at ourselves later if not at the time. Which embarrassing moments do you recall?
  • What were some of your most frightening moments?
  • What have been some of your happiest moments?

26) Financial Circumstances: 

  • How would you describe your financial circumstances in the different stages of life—youth, early adulthood, prime earning years, retirement? 
  • Was the need for money ever a major concern in your life? 
  • What have you learned about handling money that you might pass on as advice to a younger friend or family member?

27) Managing Life: People sometimes are described as approaching life one of two ways—as Planners or as Pantsers. The planners look ahead, setting goals and trying to make decisions proactively rather than reactively. The pantsers are more spontaneous, taking life as it comes, and making big decisions when they’re needed.

  • Which of these ways best describes your approach to managing life?
  • How did you develop this approach and how well has it served you.

28) Memorable Encounters: 

  • What have you learned in life–from your family, from your spouse or partner, from the family of your spouse or partner?
  • If you are married (or in a significant relationship), how did you meet your partner? How did your relationship develop into a long-term, meaningful one?
  • In your lifetime, who are the three people who have influenced you most?
  • Describe how each person influenced you and what you learned from him or her.
  • In your lifetime, who are the three most interesting people whom you’ve met?
  • What about them did you find to be interesting? What impact, if any, did each of these people have on your life?
  • Have you had any mentors, either in your work life or your personal life—someone who has helped to guide, encourage and inspire you?

29) How Has Your Thinking Developed or Changed: 

  • In what ways has your thinking (or general outlook) changed since you were a teenager or an early young adult?
  • What events or experiences have contributed to these changes in your thinking?
  • What big questions (philosophical, spiritual) have you wrestled with over the passing decades?  What discoveries have you made or resolution have you found in your questioning?

[Note: This Life Question also is available as an individual writing activity, with fuller guidelines and suggestions provided. See “How My Mind Has Changed.”]

30) Your Spiritual Beliefs: The New Testament commentator William Barclay wrote a memoir entitled Testament of Faith. In one of the key chapters, entitled “I Believe,” Barclay describes his main spiritual beliefs and how they were formed.

  • What beliefs would you describe in such a chapter?
  • How were these beliefs formed (or confirmed) in your life?

Parker J. Palmer, in his latest book of reflections On The Brink of Everything, recounts how over the past 50 years the writings of Thomas Merton have provided him with “friendship, love, and rescue.” 

  • In your reading and thinking, who has illumined the path and accompanied you on your journey”?

[Note: This Life Question also is available as an individual writing activity, with fuller guidelines and suggestions provided. See “My Spiritual Testament” and “My Faith Journey.” ]

31) Your Political Outlook: 

  • How would you describe your political outlook or affiliation?
  • How did you form your particular political views? 
  • Have you been an active voter? Have you worked on behalf of a political party?
  • How have your political views changed over the years?
  • If asked, what advice would give a younger person about political decision making?

32) The Impact of History: Canadians and North Americans have experienced many notable events during the past 80 years, including:

  • Canada’s declaration of war on Germany in Sept., 1939;
  • the Japanese bombing of U.S. ships in Pearl Harbour in Dec. 1941
  • the death of King George VI and the ascension to the throne of his 25-year old daughter Elizabeth in Feb. 1952;
  • the assassination of American president John Kennedy in Nov. 1963
  • the adoption of the Canadian “Maple Leaf” flag in January 1965
  • Canada celebrates the 100th anniversary of Confederation—July 01, 1967
  • the arrival in Canada of Vietnamese refugees (50,000 “boat people”)—1979
  • Terry Fox’s “Marathon of Hope” run ends in Thunder Bay—April 1980
  • start of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)—Jan. 1994
  • Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association—Oct. 30, 1995
  • “9 / 11”—terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre in New York and elsewhere—Sept. 11, 2001
  • Canada welcomes 25,000 Syrian refugees—Nov. 2015-Feb. 2016
  • Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation—July 01, 2017
  • advent of COVID-19 pandemic—March 2020

These are just a few of the major historic events we may recall. With a bit of effort, likely we can recall others equally notable.

  • What do you recall of any of these events?
  • Where were you at the time of each event? How did you first hear the news?
  • How have any of these events affected your life?
  • What other events in your region, country or in the world have had a notable impact on you?

33) Greatest Concerns:

  • At this stage in your life, what are your greatest worries, fears or concerns?
  • Is this worry, fear or concern one that you have had for a long while or acquired only recently?
  • What has led to this worry, fear, or concern and what impact is it having on your present life? 

34) Looking Ahead*: As you look ahead to the next stage of life, ask yourself:

  • What do I wish to make of this next stage?
  • With whom do I wish to share it, if anyone?
  • What new ventures or adventures might I now dare try?
  • What old roles might I now abandon?
  • What big traps should I try to avoid?
  • What spiritual questions or concerns have I not yet addressed?
  • How can I best give back? 
  • What new learning or changes in lifestyle am I willing to undertake to make the years ahead more satisfying?
  • How long do I wish to live?

*[These “Looking Ahead” questions derive from Gail Sheehy’s New Passages, p. 10].

35) Your Desired Legacy: 

  • What are three things (e.g. characteristics, acts, involvements) for which you hope to be remembered?
  • Why are these three especially important to you?

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.