Human memory experiences a constant expansion over time. During midlife we realize that our personal history has become larger than any imagined future. Our memories become an important source of insight in the second half of life. Unlike the bland acts of remembering and rote recall, reminiscence is an imaginative process that intermingles past and present in unique and creative ways. Reminiscence is the art of travelling deep inside memory in order to discover something we didn’t know about ourselves.

Reminiscence is Survival

March Night Sky by C. Empie
March Night Sky by C. Empie

In certain ways, modern technological life is an assault on human memory. To some extent, we have externalized our minds through electronic devices at the expense of our inner life. Our addiction to speed and acceleration is a source of personal and collective destruction. We are retrieving and recalling unprecedented amounts of information, but forgetting how to live. Distraction has become a common mode of experience.

One purpose of the midlife passage is to wake us from our culturally-induced trance. As we open and release our awareness we are confronted by the true nature of our confinement. As we begin the essential task of releasing ourselves from false assumptions about how to live, our memory comes to life in new and unfamiliar ways. Reminiscence is a core discipline in the recovery of our authenticity. It inspires the creation of deep and uniquely personal narrative of living a life worth living.

“ ‘memory and imagination sometimes dwell together… Memory pulled toward the known, and imagination sailed toward the unknown.’ …It is not always clear how and why we come to review certain events over others, but there is always potential for memories to change how we look at life and for us, in turn, to overlay the memories with new meaning.” (Marc Agronin, How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old, 2011)

Human memory is not a mechanical storage device. Machines can store and retrieve information but they cannot reminisce. One sense of the word “memorization” means rote learning and recall, but this meaning is inaccurate and misleading with respect to the inner dynamics of the human mind. The ability to store and recall information in our memory may have some utility, but it has limited value in helping us to live a vibrant and imaginative life.

Reminiscence is not idle reflection, day-dreaming, or wild fantasy. When we reminisce, we carefully construct a bridge between a past experience and a present circumstance. In another sense, to reminisce is to encourage a conversation between our conscious and unconscious life. The purpose of reminiscence is to express a deeply personal narrative that blends the past and the present into a narrative of hope for the future.

An artist uses colour as a raw material to create compelling visual artwork. Reminiscence uses past experience as the raw material to create a compelling sense of personal meaning and identity. From this perspective, human memory can be viewed as a vast dynamic resource of sense impressions that are the raw materials of our creativity, insight, and imagination.

Reminiscence is to human memory what improvisation is to jazz music. The sense impressions and images stored in memory are like patterns of musical harmonies and rhythms that provide the raw material for jazz improvisation. Our memories are motifs, themes, and patterns waiting to be improvised and expressed in imaginative ways.

Our memory is a private sanctuary of personal history. As we get older reminiscence becomes an increasingly important resource in helping us to live a fulfilling life. Past experience constantly influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in the present moment. In this sense, our memories form bridges between our personal history and the situations and circumstances of the here and now.

Over time the nature and character of our memory changes in unexpected ways. We know that throughout our lifetime the content of our memory experiences constant expansion. Sometimes new experience in life can change the assumptions we hold on to about the past. In other words, the meaning of “the past” changes and evolves over time.

During the major transitions and difficult passages in life, our memory can experience shock and trauma. For example, during midlife, our memory is more agitated and chaotic as we undertake the difficult task of rebuilding our sense of identity and authenticity. Or we might experience the death of a loved one, and our powers of reminiscence are immersed in the trance-like rhythms of grief and bereavement.

It is shocking to consider how much loss we are required to experience in our lifetime. Life is not a neutral experience, and suffering is a universal truth of existence. Suffering generates myriad reactions including stress, tension, anxiety, confusion, compulsion, obsession, avoidance, sadness, anger and fear. In these states of mind, the power of reminiscence is vital in helping us navigate through the confusion and sense of abandonment that has fallen down all around us.

In this sense, reminiscence is survival.

The Alchemy of Reminiscence

In the first half of life we become so thoroughly entangled in learning to navigate our way through the imposed cultural program that we do not even realize that we are asleep. Our assimilation into the status quo is remarkably effective; we often remain completely unaware of the masks we wear. During the midlife passage, however, we are called to a different adventure that will ultimately shape our sense of identity, authenticity, and integrity.

One of the more troubling aspects of the midlife passage is the realization that the life we have left behind us has become larger than the life ahead. The feeling of time has changed forever: the past feels more and more expansive while the future contracts and begins to feel smaller. We are touched by the felt-meaning of our own impermanence. In the abandonment of our youth, we begin to review how well we have lived to this point and, more importantly, what a good life is.

The midlife passage generates a stark contrast between the life we have had and the life we desire. If we deny reality of aging, we engage in sad and often pathetic attempts to hold on to youthful appearances at all costs. Our real task in this crucible of change is the redefine our life course in a way that embraces the primal scream of impermanence.

“There is only one kind of success that really matters: the success of transforming ourselves, transforming our afflictions, fear, and anger. This is the kind of success, the kind of power, that will benefit us and others without causing any damage.” (Thich Naht Hahn, The Art of Power, 2007)

Impermanence is a fierce mentor. It advises us that material wealth is not a meaningful form of success, and to pursue this as our primary purpose in life makes us weak and powerless. We may feel a sense of betrayal and frustration over time that appears to have been misused and lost.

Reminiscence is an important skill that is required to successfully negotiate the midlife passage. When we are stuck in the past our life has become overwhelmed by our own inertia. Our memory has become static, weak, and repetitive. The midlife passage requires a creative use of our memories through reminiscence in to negotiate the changes that lie ahead.

We can never lose time. Deep time, or kairos, flows in the rhythm of each breath we take. To project disappointment on our past is harmful and self-defeating. While the disappointments may be real, they are really only points of departure. Every aspect of our past is valuable and contains the possibility of discovery when we seek out the insights that lie hidden within them.

“Whoever has grown old and is attentive can observe how, despite the decline of powers and potentials, with every year right to the very end a life goes on expanding and increasing the endless network of relationship and connection, and how so long as memory remains alert, nothing of what passes and is past is ever lost.” (Hermann Hesse, Hymn to Old Age, 1990)

The alchemy of reminiscence is the art of relationship and connection across the entire trajectory of life. In the second half of life, our task is to fully embrace time, not feel regret over lost time. In this sense, reminiscence is a means to heal our relationship to and connection with time.

A Reminiscence

Every one we have ever known will eventually become a memory, or we will become a memory to them.

The end of life is the final frontier of reminiscence. One of our most difficult tasks in life is to negotiate the passage from life to death. When someone close to us becomes a memory we are faced with a single task, and that task is to transfigure the tragedy we feel and intentionally move directly through the heart of loss in order to discover a sense of gratitude.

“Yet, though I cannot see thee more,
‘Tis still a comfort to have seen;
And though thy transient life is o’er,
‘Tis sweet to think that thou hast been;
(Anne Bronte, A Reminiscence, 1846)

I have reminisced on the loss of my parents countless times. In the midst of the early stages of grief, reminiscence felt dreadful. Grief is a relentless adversary. The more I attempted to fight it off, the more adversarial my grief became. I eventually realized that grief only becomes adversarial when I fail to listen to its message. Stoicism is weakness masquerading as strength.

“This, of course, is the ultimate goal of reminiscence – not to restore what has been lost but to experience the gratitude that can only come with the realization that we never truly lose the gifts from the most important figures in our lives.” (Agronin, 2011)

In the midst of loss, memories can become relentless; certain memories can demand our attendance. Each time we reminisce, however, subtle changes take place in the heart. In a strange sense, I was never inside the same memory twice. Reminiscence means that while the pain of certain memories never completely leaves us, our task is to give our memories a new layer of meaning, connection, and relationship. Acceptance is the pathway to a merciful release.

The past is never really behind us. It is our constant companion in the here and now. We never forget the past or miraculously “get over” traumatic experiences. Reminiscence as a core discipline of aging instructs us in the art and grace of acceptance and gratitude. These are two qualities that become essential companions on our journey through the second half of life.

Time heals nothing at all.

After the death of a loved one, we all become an apprentice of absence. In the midst of our grief we are flooded with memories of the past, of what once was but can never be again. For the first time, we feel loss as a form of having part of our identity amputated. We must embrace an intention to heal ourselves from loss. Reminiscence, then, is a vital dimension of healing and finding our way back into life as it now must be.

The essence of this reminiscence is the creation of a bridge between the tragedy of loss and the gratitude for what we have. This is the alchemy of reminiscence. Reminiscence retrieves the past and places it directly into the harsh reality of the present moment so that we may find new and firmer ground to stand on.

Reminiscence is a primal quest for hope, gratitude, and belonging.

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  1. RoZsa J. Horvath says

    You have “hit the nail on the head” as if it were. I lost my dear, sweet Mother to cancer recently, and my adult son to addictions, and I’m still “an apprentice of absence” as you so beautifully expressed. You are so correct, that “grief is a relentless adversary.” I’m hoping that I’ll find a “firmer ground to stand on” soon.
    Thank you for giving life to feelings that are so often unbearably difficult to express.

    • says

      Dear Rozsa,
      May I first express my deepest sympathies for the loss of your mother and your son. Your grief can only be profound and deeply painful. Though we never completely lose the feeling of grief and the journey is a very difficult one, I know that you will eventually find sanctuary and some firmer ground to stand on. May you soon find relief from the pain of loss. Please feel free to stay in touch.
      Kind regards,

  2. christine says

    In the first half of life we become so thoroughly entangled in learning to navigate our way through the imposed cultural program that we do not even realize that we are asleep.
    What words of wisdom and insight and SO true. As I look back I see my struggles for wakefulness were a lot harder due to this very fact of learning to navigate my way through this society and time I was born into.
    Absolutely GREAT article Brian

    • says

      Hi Christine,
      Thanks for you kind words Christine. I am pleased that it resonated with your experience and the changes you have moved through in your own life. It’s very nice to hear from you again.
      Kind regards,

  3. June Calender says

    This is one of the best and most insightful posts I’ve read of yours. I would love to have a copy of it. Is there a way that can happen. It doesn’t seem to be possible via the system I have.

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