On Life Review

It's the 29th of December -- 8 days past the Winter Solstice, between Christmas/Hanukkah/ Kwaanza/St. Lucia Day/ Dongzh? Festival /Yule etc. and New Year's Day. There's a cold rain falling outside and I'm in a reflective mood.

New Year's: Life Review and Resolutions

I suspect I'm not alone. It's the time for New Year's Resolutions, and reviewing the year almost past. The media is full of Top Ten lists, the year's Bests and Worsts. There's something about passing this year-end milestone that leads us to pause a moment to reflect.

Psychologists call this Life Review, often seeing it as part of letting go at the end of life. But I think it gets triggered in small ways as we experience many other life events, like "big" birthdays (30, 40, 50 . . .); school graduations; class reunions or family reunions or military unit reunions; and -- the end of another year.

It's kind of like putting a period at the end of a sentence you've just written -- and then pausing to reread that sentence. What would you change? What do you like about it? What did you learn from it? What unexpected discovery surprised and pleased you?

Of course, with sentences, it's easy to edit and rewrite until it's the best we can do with it. With life, there really aren't any "do-overs." We can certainly try again at things which didn't go so well the first time, but each time is a new deal. Each time happens in the present.

Benefits of Life Review

So what's to be gained from reflecting on the year just past? I think it's a great way to gain perspective for approaching the new year.

  • It's possible to learn from your mistakes. A sober appraisal of disasters, wrong turns, missed opportunities, goof-ups and the like can help you avoid repeating similar mistakes. While it is not useful to beat yourself up for making mistakes, the truth is that we learn far more from our mistakes than from our successes. Surgeons (whose mistakes can cause someone to die) are taught to "forgive and remember" as they reflect on mistakes they've made. "Forgive yourself for being a human being who is imperfect; and Remember so you never make that mistake again."

  • It's a great way to re-evaluate your life direction, and make a "course correction." Before GPS, offshore sailors used noon readings taken by sextant to establish their true position. Since this usually differed somewhat from where the skipper thought he was, a slight adjustment to the ship's heading put it back on the desired course again. In the midst of a busy life it's easy to head off on a tangent. Year-end reflection can help you look at the bigger picture and reorder priorities to reflect what is most important. Comparing where you are at the end of 2010 to where you were on the same date in 2009 can be very instructive.

  • Using the reduced work schedule during a holiday period is a good time to think about balancing work and play. This builds on the previous suggestion, with particular focus on seeking balance among your priorities. A healthful life mixes work and family and play and friends and some kind of generosity of spirit. The particular mix is unique to you, and ideally is congruent with your values. Year-end is a great time to evaluate whether the year just past fit your template for balance, and if not, to contemplate ways to move in the direction of a more ideal balance for yourself.

  • Introspection helps you have a solid foundation for your life's activities. It's easy to be caught up in a whirl of busyness, with a million things to do and to think about. Introspection (and not only on Dec. 31) helps you stay connected to what's really important to you. Paying attention to emotions and feelings is an excellent way to ascertain if you're being true to yourself. Subtle feelings often offer important clues as to whether you're really doing what you most want to be doing. It's tempting to ignore nagging doubts, mild unhappiness, symptoms of stress. But these are signals from your body that, if listened to, can help you get back on course.

  • Making notes about significant events in the previous year creates an archive that may prove useful to you in the future. Even if you don't want to do too much navel-gazing, a sort of archival record becomes an interesting and useful document. One small way I do this is to keep an ongoing list of books I've read. I find myself consulting it now and then when I'm trying to remember a particular title or author. You may be surprised to see, even a year from now, how some of the significant events you've documented may have been forgotten. This helps you build the capability for longer-range reflection, so that it is possible to review a 5 or 10-year period for even more perspective on your life's course.

  • Pushing the Pause button for a few hours of reflection helps you practice the discipline of conscious intervention in your life. Without reflection it is easy to hurtle through life, caroming off the people and events we experience, dizzy with the speed of it all. Pausing for reflection allows the deeper parts of your Self to surface -- the values, dreams and yearnings that shape who you really are. Frantic busyness is exhausting and often counterproductive. Using memory, your imagination, your feelings and your desires can help you more deliberately craft the life you most want.

I hope you'll take the opportunity for some moments of reflection as the Earth begins yet another circle around the Sun.

What's Next?

Life review leads to planning for what's next. What do you want to do in 2011? How do you want to spend the next 365 days of your life? What is most important to you? What kinds of corrective actions do you want to take to avoid the mistakes and missteps of 2012? What accomplishments would you like to achieve next year?

All the best in the New Year!