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Finding Meaning by Rolling the Years

May 14, 2019 by Etta Hornsteiner in For Professionals, Health and Wellness

old photo, writing utensils depicting therapeutic benefits of writing a memoir

Living out our senior years can be as rewarding as rolling coins. Wait, let me explain. If you’re like me, you’ve collected lots of coins over the years just by emptying your purse or pocket into a container at the end of each day. I never know how much money is in that container; I don’t know the value of those pieces of change until I sit down and decide to roll the coins so I can deposit them in the bank or exchange for notes.

I must tell you, each time I’m surprised, pleasantly surprised, at the value of my coin droppings after a year or two: those quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies sometimes add up to hundreds of dollars. There are always a lot more pennies than anything else, but once those pennies are rolled, I gain an appreciation for their value.

There are several ways to sort or measure coins; rolling is only one way. You can use a coin-counting machine at the supermarket or at your bank; purchase a coin-sorting machine; measure the coins by weight.

Writing a memoir is a way to sort and measure the value of your years and to share your life with future generations. Two therapeutic benefits of writing a memoir are increased meaning and purpose in life and posterity.

As older adults we’ve stored decades of memories: some we consider significant, others insignificant. But we don’t truly know how valuable these experiences are to our life in the present until we take the time to organize them into a narrative.

Mary Borg, author of Writing Your Life: Bring Your Best Memories and Family Stories to Life, has identified reasons people have written a memoir:

  • To set the record straight.
  • To pass on life lessons.
  • To explain how they overcame handicaps and adversity.
  • To act as historians of major events in which they participated.
  • To leave a legacy.
  • To keep busy.
  • To tell about a memorable experience.
  • To share something they think may be of interest to others.
  • To boost their stature in the political arena.
  • To try to understand the past.

The therapeutic benefits of writing a memoir distinct from the reasons for writing it. Again Mary Borg shares some of the rewards that people have described:

  • Satisfaction and pride: at having written a book.
  • Joy of giving: a one-of-a-kind gift to relatives and the next generation.
  • Healing: – through finding “identity, meaning, and purpose” in your life;
    • through clearing up old misunderstandings and being able to offer and receive forgiveness in your life;
    • by reflecting on painful or sacrificial experiences and gaining appreciation for the presence of God, depth of your own strength, love of others in your life;
  • Self-discovery: Psychiatrist David Allen calls this connecting with your heart, which is your inner core “where all aspects of the person converge—the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual.”

What gives writing a memoir this kind of power? It promotes mindfulness. As you recall, reflect on and record your life’s experiences, you must pay attention to your emotions and feelings without judging them as bad or good but accepting them for the sake of letting go.  To deal with your past self in this nonjudgmental way is to extend grace to yourself.

Indeed, writing is a powerful tool that allows us to explore difficult emotions or experiences. Written Exposure Therapy, which involves patients writing about post traumatic events, has been proven to be effective in this way as well. In a series of writing sessions, participants recount—not relive—their experiences. They provide details about a painful event. They write about their feelings, emotions, and thoughts surrounding the issue. In a study published March 2018 in JAMA Psychiatry, involving 126 adults diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, some were treated with written exposure therapy and others were treated with cognitive processing therapy. The findings revealed that written exposure therapy was just as effective as cognitive processing therapy in treating posttraumatic stress disorder.

So, writing can help us not only find healing but also in the process of leaving a legacy show our loved ones how we have overcome these barriers. Though a legacy can be about leaving money or an estate, it can also be about leaving a written account of our experiences in life. In this way, we also become immortal by leaving a legacy of our life that will last.

So why not spend some time this summer recalling and recording those memories you have tucked away, and then sorting and rolling them into a memoir that you can deposit with the next generation. Rolling the years—shaping and telling your own story—has the power to bring healing to your life, and awareness of the meaning and beauty of your life not only for you but for others as well.

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