My August 16, 2009 post, “Layers of Life”, used a Russian matroyshka doll as a metaphor for hidden or embedded meaning in your life.
After reading Growing Old, by Swiss psychoanalyst Danielle Quinodoz, I realized the metaphor is equally powerful when turned inside out. The matroyshka is a perfect example of continuing to build the self over time, integrating new experiences and insights with that core of self developed in childhood. It’s essentially the inverse of the process I described earlier. From this perspective, the young child acquires experience and incorporates or integrates that experience to form an expanded worldview or sense of self.
Unfortunately, as Quinodoz reminds us, not everyone is adept at integrating experiences as they go along. Early in the book she makes the distinction between those who grow old actively and those who grow old passively. She sees the difference lying in the ability to integrate new experiences and approach life as a delightful, ongoing adventure. Those who are unable to do this live in a state of boredom and monotony. Those who live actively experience what she calls “small seconds of eternity” that closely resemble what others refer to as being “immersed in the moment” or the “now.”
Early in her career as a psychoanalyst, she bucked the prevailing convention that it was a waste of time to do analysis on anyone over the age of fifty. Much of her career has been devoted to the study of the elderly, and she has concluded that it’s never too late to help people develop an integrated view of their lives, to find the meaning in them. People with this sense of meaning live more fully and die more peacefully.
Although the book is totally focused on the psychoanalytic process, her explanations and case histories are clearly stated and easily understood by lay readers, and I read it with fascination. Part of that fascination was the realization that the process of discovering, challenging and integrating memories to find deeper meaning in life describes the process of writing memoir equally as well as psychoanalysis.
As an analyst writing primarily for other analysts, Quinodoz does not give a map for the process of analysis. If you take the psychoanalytical route to self-understanding, you select an analyst to guide you through the process. Writing memoir, the do-it-yourself route to enlightenment, may seem to be a solitary, totally do-it-yourself approach, but it doesn’t need to be so. Teaming up with at least one writing partner, taking classes, or working with a coach or therapist can help you become aware of conflicting beliefs, blind sp0ts in your writing, and areas where you need to do more processing work before integrating the material into the story arc of your life.
Both require a huge amount of time and introspection. Psychoanalysis requires a significant investment of cash. If you work with experts to discover or edit your story, memoir may also become expensive, but the primary value of memoir lies in the drafting rather than the crafting. Either route can yield transformative results.
Write now: make a list of lessons you’ve learned at various points in life. Try arranging them in chronological order, leaving lots of space to one side. Use colored markers, crayons, or something colorful to draw links between related clusters of lessons. Look for patterns and interrelationships, and note any significant obstacles you overcame in learning a lesson. Keep this document to organize stories about the lessons.