The Second Chance of Retrospection
September 14th, 2011

I really should get out the door on time in the morning.  When I’m not running late I catch more of NPR’s Morning Edition than just the business news.  And – you’ll be shocked to learn this – they cover some really interesting topics.  On Monday I had an earlier-than-usual meeting and left at what should be considered “on time” but actually registers as “early” for me.  As I drove I listened to this story about “Dignity Therapy” for dying people, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The long and short of it is that impending death – not surprisingly - changes our outlook on things, particularly our own lives.  A psychiatrist named Harvey Chochinov who counsels the dying took particular note of this and wanted to explore what about death caused such a shift in our vantage points.  According to the NPR piece, “[w]hat he found was that what people found most assaulting and annihilating was this idea that who they were would completely cease to exist after their death.  And so Chochinov decided to do something about it.”

The solution was to work with his clients to document their lives.  This documentation provided his clients the assurance that something about themselves will live on beyond their deaths.  For some of his clients they were assuaged by the mere knowledge that their stories would continue.  Others – those whose lives were troubled – told their stories to serve as a warning to younger friends or family members.

NPR’s recount of Chochinov’s work mentions that, “[t]he stories we tell about ourselves at the end of our lives are often very different than the stories that we tell about ourselves at other points.”  We remember things differently when faced with death, and this quite normal.  What fascinates me about this is not that we do it in the first place, but that whether or not we look back over our lives with accuracy has no bearing on how therapeutic the retrospective exercise is.

Apparently when it comes to evaluating the whole of our lives we may reframe many parts of them.  We may choose to remember only the good or only the bad, and this is okay.  When we look back over an entire life we have the benefit of seeing how a particular event played out, and what light best to cast it in for others.  Much like an author crafting a story, dying people can see the whole picture, understand how each of the moving parts interacts, and emphasize or downplay various events based on their ultimate significance to the larger narrative.  This isn’t something we can do with such events as they play out in real time.

I think someday (hopefully not for a very long while) I will find peace in such retrospection.  But I wonder if it isn’t a good thing not to have such context in the present moment.  We live our lives as though nearly everything is important.  Even in situations where we can see that something good or bad going on really doesn’t carry significant weight in the long run, we don’t stop experiencing it because of that.  I’m inclined to think it is beneficial to our lives that each moment is lived on roughly equal footing – that is, with comparable significance ascribed to it in the present tense.  Otherwise we might be inclined to behave lazily toward moments we know to hold no long-term meaning, or to overly stress about those we know will live with us for a long time.

The most comforting thing about these little rewrites that we make in the face of death, though, is that we can ultimately render any moment in any light we choose.  The successes can be painted with humility, the failures with grace.  Our hindsight is nearly always nearly perfect.  It is a balm to me to know that even my foibles will be salvaged in some way when I look back on them.  And in the meantime I don’t have to concern myself with which moments may or may not be “major” in the long run, but just live my life as best I can in the present moment, and count on seeing the larger portrait of my life only after it is complete.

One Response to “The Second Chance of Retrospection”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    Yes! I found this type of philosophy to be very true for my life when I was in my twenty’s and single. This is what I told myself when I entered into a relationship that I knew had an expiry date. It just felt like the right thing at the right moment. Now, married and a mom, I haven’t revisited this approach in quite some time. Feels like now that I have a kid, I can never make a mistake, you know? Thanks for reminding me about this valuable take on today.