A Golden Thread, or Woven Chord?

I have lived most of my life, guided by the Erik Erikson’s view of human existence as moving in developmental stages. A psychoanalyst by training, Erikson predictably spends more time in childhood, with a focus on the development of trust, autonomy, initiative and the finally emerging identity.

He originally only tipped his hat at old age, as a time of reminiscing, of looking back over one’s life, a life review, he called it. He offered the idea that in that review, one is seeking to find a thread of meaning that runs throughout the narrative that gives meaning and significance. If one discerns that thread, one enters the later stage of life with a sense of integrity, granting a sense of hope. Ruefully, if one does not find that thread, one sails off into the sunset with despair, that is, there is no meaning.

Theoretically, I sensed the power of this observation in my work as a research assistant at the Center for Faith Development at Emory, interviewing a variety of persons about their lives and the sense they made out of it. Our intent, being structural developmental psychologists, was to identify the cognitive structures they were using to think about their lives and the decisions they made. As a more analytically inclined person, I also kept an ear out to the dynamics in play within the psyche of the soul I was interviewing.

Older people fascinated me as they were clearly in a more review mode, looking back over their life, with a profound sense of assessment. Though they were not familiar with Erikson’s theory, they were engaging in the life review work. Some clearly had a sense of integrity, that their life was worth the ride, and there was deep joy that I could sense. And then, there were some persons that seemed scattered, feeling adrift, “at sea”, disconnected, with a feel of depression under the reflection, an inkling of regret that permeated the person. This was my observation as a young adult, full of expectation, great in the Dickens sense, and anxious, in the Kierkegaardian way. I was making life notes as well as doing my job of developmental research.

Later, my first job at the Cathedral was to work in pastoral care with the seniors who lived at the residential high rise behind the campus, Cathedral Towers. There had been several suicides among the residents, pricking the concern of the administration, and motivating them to double down with a therapeutically oriented approach to the job. While initiating a variety of programmatic work, I brilliantly instituted a “happy hour”, after all, most were Episcopalians. But out of those gatherings, I began groups that encouraged life review, or as we called it, “reminiscence’.

I borrowed from my prior work at Emory, working with ministers as they took a pause in their career for an assessment. Gathering cohort groups of ministers of similar tenure, I had developed a starting point exercise which we titled, “Chapters of My Life”. We asked people to list the chapter titles of their “autobiography”, giving transparent titles in images that would capture the “feel” of particular times in their lives. We asked them to frame it in eight to twelve chapters, although we went easy on our restrictions. We also asked that, after they completed the chapters assignment, the participants offer a title to their imagined “book”. What would be the title of your autobiography? we playfully probed.

It was a surprisingly effective exercise that I initially designed as a mere ice-breaker for the gathering of folks before we got to the “meat” of our didactic work. Surprisingly, the exercise emerged as one of the most powerful moments of the week.

I would have the participants, after completing the assignment, take the proverbial educational magic markers of various colors, and write down their thoughts on newsprint. Sprawled on the floor, or spread out on tables, the folks would record their work in interesting ways, some with precise careful lettering, meticulously measured, and others in varying colors and shapes and emphases.

They were instructed to put the newsprint up on the walls in the room. After all the work was posted, I gathered the group in the center of the room, explaining the next step. We were going to move around the room, pausing at each posting on newsprint, allowing the person to read their own “chapters”, in their own voice. I imposed one restriction that was disturbing initially to these ministers: there was to be no commentary, no questions. Just read the text. A tough restriction for those ministerial types who were used to asking questions and “splaining” things. But I was determined to maintain the time limits. The result of the silence was a complete surprise.

What happened was what I call “holy” or sacred space, as there was a deep recognition of the depth of the words being uttered. This was the “stuff” of life, and a sense of awe and reverence was indeed meet and right. We moved around the circle, listening to the voices reading the script of chapter titles, some spoken proudly, some with nervousness, some with emotional breaks, tears, occasionally weeping. Regardless, one got a sense of the power of what was being captured in that “now” moment, our common sharing of the pilgrimage of human life that we all shared. No “splaining” was necessary in that moment. Awe ruled.

I borrowed this for my elders at the Cathedral Towers, without putting it up on newsprint, merely read. There turned out to be something missing without the written words in print, so as we continued the work, I had some volunteer scribes who could assist in the transfer to newsprint. And the circle, with the movement, though problematic dues to mobility issues, it turned out to be worth the trouble. Again, the holiness seemed to shimmer as these older voices shared their “chapters” with their fellow pilgrims.

The “Chapters of My Life” became a starting point for some of my people, as I encouraged them to unpack the various chapters. Some used time to edit their chapter titles, adding more titles, removing some titles, shaping their sense of narrative as they worked. It turned out to be a powerful method to get at this thing Erikson pointed to in the continuing developmental arc of these persons.

That was almost forty years ago. I can hardly believe it. It seems like yesterday, gathering with the Peytons, Don Hinkle, the Snoddys, and my favorite, Elizabeth Dickey. What a group of teachers I had, as I learned what it meant to grow old with grace and grit. And I was the blessed student of the wisdom of these witnesses as to how a faithful Episcopalian who keeps an eye on the horizon for what was coming. These persons were my adjunct professors.

My own work of writing reflects some of the “lessons learned” from these teachers. I’ve been listing my “chapters” for years, filling it out, amending, adding, extracting, and as my kids would remind me, embellishing…..after all, I am South of God. And when I go to my list of twelve, I natively cast an eye to find that thread, that one thread of meaning that unites the variety of experiences that made up my life.

What’s dawned on me recently is that there exists several strands of meaning in my life, woven together into a cord of transformation. I have studied how individuals grow and develop as persons. I dove deeply into how individuals join together in bonds of intimacy and closeness. And then, I shifted my focus to how families form, functionally and dysfunctionally. Extending that, I expanded to gain the insights of organizational development as groups of these things called humans seek to join their visions and wills to make something happen. Eventually, I found myself studying the power, positive and negative, of culture. Centered in transformation and development, I discern my thread has evolved into a cord with a variety of strands, woven together in complexity.

It leaves me feeling excited about what’s next, hungry for the next chapter of exploration, insistent on pushing on down the trail of discovery. Recently, I shared with a trusted colleague my wish of sixty more years to discover, to deepen, to explore. That’s not a bad place to be, psychically. I hope to continue my journey in my new island locale, with a childlike wonderment as to what is ahead. Expectation seems peculiarly right for Advent.

How is it for you? No matter how far down the trail you might be, why not take the challenge to write down your “chapters of my life”? What would be the “title” you would choose to capture the flow and direction of your life? Do you discern a thread, or a cord of meaning and direction that weaves your life together, or are you in the process of putting it together?

Some of my best time these days is coming alongside folks who are in that process. Assisting them discern those patterns, chase those threads of meaning into a cord of trajectory that leads to their destiny and future, it has been my joy as a coach, a therapist, a spiritual director, as a person.

Why not use some of this strange time of holiday in the middle (preacher word: midst) of this pandemic to invest in this exercise of self-awareness? What are your chapter titles? What is the title of your life story? Dive into the playful exercise of review, whether you’re a dinosaur like me, or not. I think you could discover some valuable insights from the past and promptings for the future. Blessings.

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