Therapists and counselors are trained to collect clients’ life histories as a means of uncovering events that may contribute to negative symptoms like depression, anxiety, phobia, etc. This experience feels like detective work, seeing the client as victim…of life events, trauma, etc. Clients sometimes feel cornered or defensive as they respond to “intake” questions. Or they might feel shy about revealing embarrassing memories. Regardless, the process is clinical, much like going for a medical exam to detect disease.
But consider how different and often exhilarating is the experience of sharing our autobiographies without the load of feeling psychoanalyzed. We are free to describe the arc of our life as both fact and revelation. Beginning with the accident of our birthplace, our given families, and the socioeconomics of our upbringing, we follow the proverbial yellow brick road of experiences that led to career and relationship decisions. Each person’s saga is unique.
Even when we share family origins, siblings can seem like offspring of different parents, based on how each of them experienced their parents. Likewise, many of us share racial, religious, cultural, and geographic origins, but those impacts are, again, singular in their impact. Each of us is clearly our own story.
As the facilitator of our clients’ stories, I am fascinated by the choices people make along their life path: who or what influenced their biggest decisions; how they picked a path toward purpose or just plain survival; what roads were taken, not taken, and maybe revisited at midlife.
I’m humbled by the trust people put in me as a listener. Once they sense no judgment, they open readily and exuberantly. The experience of feeling heard must be rare, at least for an extended time (our interviews are two 90-minute sessions). People want to be known. They want their lives to count. And for most of our clients, they are touched by their children’s desire to know their history on a deep level. Time and time again, we get feedback from the adult children who gifted their parents with this program that they learned much they didn’t know about their parents. And they were touched by the emotional expression they heard in the telling. Maybe it’s easier to be revealing with strangers sometimes than with our own kin. Maybe it’s just a matter of time, of which busy midlife professionals have little.
Whatever the constellation of reasons, for me it’s a gift of grace to witness and record people’s stories. Even though interviews are only one- or two-time experiences, in the moment of all that sharing there is a heartful connection that is unmistakable. I leave the cocoon of an interview to take a walk outdoors. I see every passerby as his/her own story, and I wonder who knows (or should know) their stories. I hope that somewhere in each person’s life there comes a time and place for deep listening, and preserving what was shared.