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Reading our lives

We write the story of our lives with each choice we make, but do we take time to read it?
By Marshall Hawkins
Summer 2007 5.15.07

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We grow and learn through a two-part process of action and reflection. It is only through our reflections that our actions of the past make any sense. And it is only by acting that we make real what we come to believe through our reflections.

But how often it seems that our actions outpace our consideration of them. They are like unopened packages that pile up, patiently waiting to be looked at.

One way that reflection happens is very simple—through storytelling. In hospice work, chaplains often encourage people to engage in a process called life review—that is, telling stories from the past. It turns out that we come to understand the significance of our lives through narrative more than any didactic or literal way. This isn’t just true at the end of life, of course—it’s true anytime. But the importance of life review might be the gift that those who are dying can offer the rest of us. We help each other read our lives by listening to and telling each other our tales.

The power of the story is how we make sense of ideas that are beyond our rational minds—ideas that are not logical or linear. We record the most important things about being human through stories. The sacred scriptures of the world’s religions are mostly stories. Jesus’ most profound teachings are in the form of parables. Great literature tends to tell us more about ourselves than any studies or psychology texts. Poetry, art, film—they are all cultural responses to our quest for meaning.

Stories—whether told through literature, art, or film—ask questions that I think all of us wonder about on some level, even if only subconsciously. We want to know that there has been some purpose to our living. What has been the result of our time here on earth? How will we be remembered? What difference has it made that we were here?

Perhaps this is why at the end of life we tend to value more those things which are truly most important. Everyone is different, but in general the details of daily life become more trivial to those who are dying. Relationships seem to be more important. After all, material goods and our accomplishments are things that we can’t take with us. But the ways we have touched others live on after we’re gone. This is a lesson for all of us, no matter our age or our health.

We write the stories of our lives all the time with the choices we make—our decisions about how we spend our time and the things we do with it. But as we write, we need to periodically stop to read what we’re writing, to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

As we reflect we make meaning. And we each do it in a million different ways. I think of the iconic image of the wise guru on the top of a the mountain—the subject of so many characterizations. You know the scene. The questing seeker scrambles up the cliff to find the guru seated cross-legged outside a cave. And the seeker asks, breathless, I’ve come all this way to ask you, oh wise one, what is the meaning of life?

Except that it doesn’t work that way.

If there was such a guru at the top of that mythic mountain, I suspect she or he would end up doing a lot more listening than talking. Because whatever answers there are lie in our living our way through to them and then thinking about what we’ve done. A cycle of action and reflection.

Whatever our values are, whatever we consider to be most important in life, let us choose those things to guide our life choices. When we know that our time here is not forever, we can make the most of the time we do have. We pass through this world but once. Let us use this time well.


Excerpted from a sermon delivered to the UUA staff chapel December 5, 2006.

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