Who wants to live forever?
My midlife crisis started ten years ago. During that time there have been career changes, oodles of glitter (a story for another time), a couple of tears, some hysterical laughter and many hot flashes. There was even a pilgrimage. Through it all, the knot in my stomach persisted– a reminder of everything I had not accomplished. Of course, that fed my Catholic guilt just splendidly. I live in a beautiful place, have outstanding friends, a family that loves me, near-perfect health and first-world luxuries some would kill for. How dare I not be satisfied?
I’m not alone though. Millions of us are apparently searching for meaning. Just walk through the self-help section of any bookstore. Or ask Google. There are those who say it’s the curse of privilege– of not having to evade tigers while roaming the aisles at Safeway, or crocodiles while bathing. Life is comfortable and predictable. Is there any way then, that this simmering dissatisfaction can be changed?
Because I thought it might yield some kind of answer, I enrolled in a master’s degree in psychology. I read Frankl and Yalom. Jung and Freud. Erikson and Maslow. The list is long. Two years into my studies, still no wiser, the time came to decide on a research project. I was burrowing down the rabbit holes of storytelling, reminiscence and narrative therapy when I stumbled across Guided Autobiography (GAB).
GAB was developed by gerontology pioneer, Dr. James Birren, in the mid ‘70s. It has been used widely over the past forty years to help people document their life stories. It does this by guiding them through turning points and life themes such as family, career, death and spirituality. Each week, participants meet in small groups and read aloud their two-page, theme-based autobiographical stories.
At the time of my GAB discovery, I had just completed the third draft of my second book – entirely composed of autobiographical stories. (My little crisis had taught me that filling every second of every day with busyness made it easier to ignore the gnawing in my stomach.) I had even found a literary agent in New York who saw potential. I was, of course, excited, but I knew something was missing in my story. I wondered if Dr. Birren’s process could help me identify what it was.
I joined a GAB group. For research. And myself. The first thing any GAB facilitator will tell you is that GAB is not therapy. It is, however, undeniably therapeutic. Precisely because it doesn’t seek to ‘fix.’ I started seeing my life with new eyes. And each story I heard from the other remarkable human beings in my group, triggered memories I’d forgotten I’d forgotten. Scene by higgledy-piggledy scene, the mosaic of my life’s cracks and colours shifted. And that’s when I found the binding thread for my manuscript - the big question I’d been avoiding. On the page. In life.
I started rewriting my book. Again. I had also found my research project. I’ll not bore you with the details. The gist is that it examines how writing our autobiographical stories affects our sense of meaning and satisfaction with life. The first data analyses have just been completed and the outcomes are astonishing. Can it possibly be this easy? Can the simple act of sharing our stories affect our lives so significantly?
Khalil Gibran once said, “To be able to look back upon one’s life in satisfaction, is to live twice.” GAB – and writing my story –gave me a new perspective. When I look back now, I am somewhat surprised to see, in the words of a rather famous book, that “it was good.” So go write your story. It’s easier than you think. Take it one scene at a time. Include the twists. The detours. The ordinary. The unplanned. The forgotten. The tears. The laughter. Always the laughter. Then read it with awe. It’s your life. You’ve earned the right to live it twice.
Published in The Beacon newspaper, May 2019.