Look back on your life. What is the story? American culture would have you believe your life story is a record of accomplishments marked by goods and titles accumulated, such as degrees, houses, cars, honors and jobs.
When you think of your life and the record you want to leave behind does this way of recording your life really do you justice? The process of aging can teach us the value of the intangibles in a life story, including the importance of community and the worth of a given moment.
This does not mean that through the long process of aging, we do not continue to learn and seek new experiences, but we do it from a new perspective that is less concerned with building up our treasure than with spreading it from a storehouse whose doors are open. Our ego is less bounded, less defended, more permeable.
Bert from the art project Thoughts In Passing shares how his view of life story shifted.
This new perspective and unbounded ego is not reinforced and welcomed by American culture. Often our sense of accomplishment is based on satisfying others’ perceptions rather than our personal intrinsic value systems. Of the human desire to satisfy others, eminent dementia researcher and pioneer Tom Kitwood wrote, “In the adapted child ego state a person is hypersensitive to the requirements of others, and lives with an underlying dread of disapproval and rejection; he or she finds it exceedingly difficult to relax into intimacy and playfulness [emphasis added].” Kitwood is pointing to the condition of the ego who has not been allowed to benefit from the gifts of age.
Elders say that age can be a wise teacher in letting go of this way of recording our life story. As they move toward elderhood, they report becoming more and more comfortable finding their value within, rather than basing it on praise from without.
When we reject our own aging we also reject this growth and maintain the childlike egoic state. When we reject the subtle growth and teaching age offers, the changes often sneak up on us in drastic, disruptive ways. In mythology, this energy of upsetting things to set up for personal growth is called the trickster. When it comes to life story, the phenomenon of dementia becomes our trickster and is particularly good at rearranging our life stories. What nearly everyone views as a deeply alarming change can actually be viewed as great gift in this context. When we are no longer able to catalog the facts (diplomas, houses, accomplishments) of our lives in the same way, we can begin to value that which is not ‘fact’. In this process, relationships and community rise in value. A sense of who we feel we are (versus what we have done or who we were) remains when memories as we think of them are elusive.
At any age or cognitive ability, choosing to cultivate awareness of how one records one’s life story is one way to take ownership over the authorship of one’s life. A hint of this rewriting of personal narratives is already evident in American culture as we grapple to find meaning for those living with memory loss. Music, it turns out, provides an awakening life soundtrack even when the details are long forgotten.
Many know the power of music to awaken individuals from the 2014 film Alive Inside by director Michael Rossato-Bennett. In collaboratoin with Rossato-Bennett, Dr. Bill Thomas is exploring the emotionally resonant power of music in his 2016 Age of Disruption Tour performance Disrupt Dementia.
Disrupt Dementia features exclusive outtakes from a new film by Rossato-Bennett and includes live music and storytelling from humanitarian and refugee Samite Mulondo and featuring musician Nate Silas Richardson. The tour also introduces audiences to a different way of recording their life story through the emotionally resonant power of music using an innovative app developed by Rossato-Bennett’s Alive Inside Foundation.
If you don’t have a chance to join the Tour in person, here is how you can play with your life story.
Create your own Alive Inside playlist. Listen to this ageful representation of yourself. Houses and cars and jobs can be lost, but your force of character stays with you and is enlivened by the music you love. Even when you do not remember where you have been, you have been there and your character bears the marks of your experiences. By practicing looking at your life story in this way, you can alleviate some of the suffering of loss that comes with age, and we can develop a deeper appreciation for ourselves and all the permutations of our story.