Unfinished Business

Doing the right thing.

Putting Your Life Story to Work

A tribute to Dr. Robert N. Butler

Dr. Butler gave the elderly dignity and hope.
The date was July 18, 2010. I had just finished my book tour for UNFINISHED BUSINESS, my chronicle of a midlife year spent closing circles and making amends. Finally, I could turn to the items of unfinished business I had put off while being on book tour. The first and most important was to arrange a meeting with Dr. Robert N. Butler, the psychiatrist who had founded the National Institute of Aging and the International Longevity Center and done more than any other person alive to fight "ageism" -- his term for society's widespread discrimination against the elderly.

Why was I so interested in seeing Butler?

A few months earlier I had read an article he had written in the early 1960s that described -- to a tee -- the process I had just gone through at age 54 when I got fired from my job and embarked on the ten journeys of healing and reconciliation that transformed my life.

In the article, Butler described the proclivity of old people to become far more interested in their remote memories than in whatever happened yesterday or a week ago. They could recall past events with stunning clarity, he wrote. He also noted how they would tell the same stories over and over again -- to themselves and often anyone who would listen.

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Most researchers had dismissed this tendency of the elderly to reminisce as a sign of decline -- "she's living in the past," "his mind is wandering," "she's regressing back to childhood." But Dr. Butler saw it as part of a "naturally occurring, universal mental process" that helps the old make sense of their lives as they get closer to death.

He called it "life review." Old people weren't meandering as they reminisced, they were editing and rewriting the story of their lives. As they approached death, they had an overwhelming urge to resolve conflicts and reconcile with friends and relatives. When they accomplished those things, they experienced a feeling of "hard-earned serenity" according to Butler. They were less afraid of dying and took more joy in life.

When I read Butler's article, I was struck by how much I identified with the subjects in his study. I was 20 to 30 years younger than they were when I got fired; yet I experienced similar worries and fears and the same desire to revisit my past, right my wrongs and make sense of my life.

A few weeks after I lost my job I immersed myself in old letters, photographs and other personal mementos. Filled with longing and regret, I compiled a list of ten items I needed to address before moving ahead in my life. I committed myself to a year of tying up my loose emotional ends. I found a long-lost aunt, paid back a long-overdue debt, made a condolence call to a friend whose daughter had been killed in Iraq, thanked a teacher who had changed my life, eulogized a grandmother whose funeral I had missed, forgave my childhood bully, fulfilled a promise to a boy in a refugee camp and reconnected with three old friends. In the process I rediscovered my curiosity, sense of adventure and capacity for empathy -- and I restored the confidence and sense of purpose I had lost when I was fired from my job.

It was that journey of discovery that I wanted to discuss with Dr. Butler. I wanted to tell him about the "life review" that had transformed me and my relationships in midlife after I had suffered the trauma of losing my job. I was not alone in my feelings of angst and uncertainty. Millions of older, younger and especially middle-age Americans were losing their jobs at a record pace and worrying about whether the economy of the future would have a place for them. Like the old people he had championed in the 1960s, society had spit us out and left us for dead. We were "fat to be trimmed, a burden to the bottom line." Yet we also had families to feed -- and experience too valuable to be wasted.

Could "life review" be part of the solution for some of the millions of workers who had been forced to reevaluate their careers, values and lives? There was an entire generation of people between the ages of 40 and 60 who would need to re-invent themselves. Wasn't this the perfect time for them to take an inventory of their unfinished emotional and spiritual business and gain the energy, strength and self-knowledge that comes with closing circles and making amends?

There was one big difference between Butler's 80-year-olds and me -- my "life review" wasn't simply a mental process. It involved reaching out directly to people and reconnecting with them face-to-face. Because I was in my mid-fifties, most of the people I had wronged or neglected, including my parents and childhood friends, were still alive. I still had the energy and physical ability to reach out and visit them in person. That added a wonderful, often kinetic dimension to our reunions. Together we could laugh, cry, hug and heal -- and share the lessons we had learned with others.

Why should people wait until their deathbeds or a trauma like losing their job to put their emotional and spiritual lives in order? Why couldn't they activate this process earlier -- indeed, at any age -- as part of their commitment to leading a more joyful, connected life?

I was ready to contact Dr. Butler. I sat at my computer and Googled his name, hoping to find an address or phone number where I might reach him. It took only a few seconds for me to discover that I would never get that chance. Two weeks earlier, on July 4th, he had died of leukemia. Dr. Robert N. Butler, the great champion of older people, was dead.

Dr. Butler gave the elderly dignity and hope. But he was a voice for all Americans. He understood that we live longest and best when we stay active and healthy and nourish our deep human connections to our loved ones and neighbors. He also understood the life-changing power of storytelling.

That's why I am dedicating this blog, called Unfinished Business, to him.

All of us have unfinished business. It can be a friend we lost touch with or a mentor we never thanked; it can be a call we meant to make or a pledge we failed to honor. It can be a goal we lost sight of or a spiritual quest we put on hold. Too often, life takes over and pushes the experiences that might enrich, enlarge or even complete us to the bottom of our to-do list.

This blog will focus on how we can tend to our unfinished business and keep it from accumulating. It will explore how we can use our unfinished business to understand who we are and what we value -- and to deepen our connections to other human beings.

From time to time I will report on relevant science and research. But, for the most part, Unfinished Business will feature the stories of people like you and me who are struggling to reinvent themselves and make the most of their lives in these uncertain times. Together we'll have the conversation I intended to have with Dr. Butler -- and we'll take it, I hope, in exciting new directions.

Lee Kravitz is the author of the books "Pilgrim" and "Unfinished Business" and formerly editor-in-chief of Parade magazine.

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