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Spirituality & Aging: Sharing Your Life Story

Spirituality & Aging: Sharing Your Life Story

If you sat down to write your autobiography, what would fill the pages of your life story? Over the past few weeks we have defined spirituality. We have explored how our inner beliefs serve as the framework for our own life story by informing how we find and nurture a growing sense of purpose, and even how we approach decision-making. This week, we discuss how we share our life story.

How would you go about giving a full and detailed account of your life? I was asked this question when submitting paperwork for a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program several years back. I thought to myself, “We are talking several decades here. That is a lot of content. Where do I begin?”

I wondered if I should tell the story of my first memory of religion and God. That was the day I discovered this beautiful book with gold trimmed pages. The pages felt like no other book I’d handled with my tiny four year-old fingers. The sound each page made as I tore it from the book and crinkled it was delightful…until my mother entered the room. The look on her face spoke volumes. It told me this had to be a pretty special book. My mother’s reaction also left me with the feeling that God was not happy about this!  “Who was this God person she was talking about and what were we doing with His book anyway,” I pondered.

Should I tell the story about the day I learned to ride a bicycle all by myself? The experiences that day continue to be a metaphor for the seemingly insurmountable challenges I face in my life. I might have been scraped and bruised, but I’ll never forget how wonderful it felt to soar on that first ride.

What emerged from the pages of my autobiographical essays was not necessarily all the daily details of my life, but a series of stories. I had stories about the size of my family, my birth order, where we lived, and our values and ethics. I even had stories about family members I have never met. All of these came together in a “life synthesis.” This helped to described who I am and who I will continue to become. Rev. Nancy Osborne describes life synthesis as looking back into the past while looking forward with hopeful anticipation. The stories I share from my life story illustrate what matters to me, what influenced the person I am now, emotionally, physically and spiritually. That is how the stories that make up our life story function.

We highlight the stories that are of significant to us. Perhaps we might choose to share stories of triumph over adversity, about treasured relationships. Or maybe we share stories that highlight compassion, honesty, integrity, and determination. Each story may unfold like a short story with a beginning, middle and end, complete with a cast of characters. Some may even include an epilogue.

In fact, our lives are filled with many stories. We use them as a means to look back and find meaning in our life. Stories can give us hope and purpose for the future. Even the field of psychology recognizes the significance of our life stories. Psychologists refer to this as Narrative Identity. Dan. P. McAdams defines Narrative Identity as “an individual’s internalized, evolving and integrative story of the self.” McAdams also states that the stories we share are, “…always about both the reconstructed past and the imagined future.”

Our stories also serve a generative purpose as well. We pass on our stories to others who retell and then incorporate into their own story. Images of story-telling grandparents or community sages may come to mind. Many cultures believe wisdom is a gift to the aging.

Pastoral psychotherapist Margaret Kornfeld makes me believe that the adage “with age comes wisdom” has a ring of truth to it. Kornfeld writes, “[Senior adulthood] is the time of meaning making. Many philosophers, religious leaders and thinkers have made their weightiest contributions at the end of their lives as they have with reviewed, synthesized, and integrated a lifetime of experience and reflection.” And, there are studies to support that as you age you continue to grow in intelligence. Kornfeld cites research that shows “the ability to make judgments on the basis of accumulated information, range of world knowledge, and fluency and richness of communication actually increases well into the ninth decade of life.” She goes on to note that psychologist “[Erik] Erikson believes that it is the task of all people to become wise and to make meaning of our own life experience.”

Kornfeld’s words remind me how treasured our wise elders are in our communities and in our hearts. This wisdom is passed on through the pages of our intersecting life stories.

There are many suggested ways to begin and find a focus. Considering some of these, here are a few simple steps that might help you begin to bring out your life story.

  • Think about your life. What are your earliest memories? What images come to your mind? You can draw, paint or free write to express them.
  • Make a list of people, places, events, or rituals that are part of your life story.
  • Review the listing, consider relationships, and identify one or two themes. (Look for themes and metaphors to emerge)
  • Start making some notes that will help you organize your emerging narrative.
  • Rework it and/or rewrite it as often as you would like. Each time I write about my life narrative, I pull out different themes and illustrations about my self-identity.
  • Don’t be afraid to call a professional (pastor, chaplain, counselor, therapist or other healthcare professional) if you need to talk about or process painful life experiences.

It is through our stories we share that our memories are preserved for future generations. Through our stories:

  • we illustrate what is important to us,
  • how we nurture a growing sense of purpose, and
  • how we approach and make decisions.

Our spirituality makes up the inner beliefs we hold. These inner beliefs are like the binding that holds all of the pages of our life story together.

What would fill the pages of your life story? How does your spirituality hold the pages of your life story together?

More Posts in this Series:
Why It’s Important
Finding Your Purpose
The Power of Decisions

Learning about Complementary and Integrative Therapies

Reverend Sherry Perry has a special interest and passion for senior adults. She is focused on supporting the various relationships surrounding senior adults as they navigate this special season of life. She is board certified with both the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Inc. (BCCi) an affiliate of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) and the National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains (NAVAC). She received her Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School.