Following your path and appreciating your journey

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: The importance of insight, narrative review and developing a coherent sense of self.

In my professorial world, I frequently find myself talking with students who are trying to sort out their path in life. I have come to appreciate how easy it is for them to look at me and my faculty colleagues and figure we strode down a clear and well-marked hallway to get to where we sit today. Perhaps that is true for some, but for most of us (myself certainly included) it was more of a mountain trail, and the clarity of that journey is only truly visible when we look back. Looking back we find a clear and golden cord that leads from then to now, a cord woven by circumstance and design, and for most of us a good bit of chance and serendipity, too.

For many people—young and old alike--looking backward down the path of life is a kind of ritual of review. Milestones get revisited, mentors and friends celebrated, tragedies re-understood, family stories and fables and events remembered. Doing so reinforces how important it is to understand the self in this way. This backward review is sometimes a celebration, an opportunity to laugh with loved ones about events and strengthen connections that come from shared history. Sometimes it is an individual journey of reflection that highlights important truths and in doing so informs decisions and next steps. And sometimes it is a bittersweet struggle to make sense of a loss or manage a difficult and necessary life change. But review happens. And it makes people stronger in a bunch of ways.

For some, the backward glance down the path is threatening—a quick peek to make sure something isn’t sneaking up behind them in the dark. Often they experience their journey as a dash through a murky thicket of thorns and rough patches and potential danger. Why review it when the goal is simply to get through it as best you can? The past is ignored—appreciated only for having been survived.

Most people find themselves between these two extremes—pushing through challenges, appreciative of clearings when they come, as they allow for moments to catch their breath, review the journey a bit and prepare for the next uphill climb.

The question I am pondering today, as the New Year approaches, is whether there is merit in the ritual of review. Is there a useful purpose in finding your cord—the one woven from circumstance, design and serendipity? Is there value in pausing to intentionally sort through your narrative identity? Wise people have answered that question in many ways. And psychotherapeutic techniques across the decades have evolved to emphasize the importance of understanding the past and how it informs the present for each one of us.

One of the things I find most interesting about the narrative journey is the way in which our stories evolve over time. The historical truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of ourselves does, and as we learn more about our past, as we understand more about how it informs our present, and as our present lives evolve to reflect these new understandings so do our stories and truths and personal myths evolve. This is a gift of the psyche—one that allows us to appreciate anew the narrative of our lives, one that gives us opportunity to weave new strengths into the cord that leads us along the path into our present.

I wish for you an interesting path through the New Year, one that celebrates your life and builds on strength and hope and peace.