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Reviewing life near the end

I don't know how old Paul of Tarsus was when he died. No one knows that for sure. I suspect he was an older man, because he describes many years and various turns of growth along the way of what sounds like a full life. Supposedly he was born five years after Jesus and died 62 years later. I wonder what it would have been like, as a psychologist, to conduct a life review with him. A life review is when you go back over your life and revisit each stage of growth and experience the major pivot points and developments and the big moments that stand out from the mundane current of everyday living. A person doing life review is trying to figure out what his or her life amounts to up that point, and if it has been a life worth living. They also want to figure out how much still remains to be done.

For example, issues of sustainability and well-being are relevant here (bear with me). In some cases people want to know how much they can exploit of the world's resources in order to be happy. In other cases they want to know how much they can exploit without infringing on future people's ability to exploit as much as they want. These considerations illustrate how some people think in selfish terms of their own pleasure. In some cases well-being is a matter of the individual instead of the individual in relationship to others. Oscar Kjell, in an article in Review of General Psychology (September 2011), maintains that one must see well-being within a consideration of sustainability. The sustainable future, or what the world is going to be like for our children, thus a relational obligation to our children, affects our current sense of well-being. This is a matter of values and faith keeping good faith with oneself in relationship to others. A person who does not see well-being within sustainability believes that he or she has had a life worth living if he or she has obtained many things and satisfied many appetites. A person who sees well-being within sustainability believes his or her life was worth living if he or she contributed to the well-being of those to come later.

Who we are contributes to what we do, and what we do helps shape the persons we become. The person we become is the person who gets reviewed when life reaches a certain point. So, what might Paul have said about the person he had become? At one point he said that he yearned to die and to be with the Lord, but because it would help others for him to stay he imagined that that is what would happen. Near the end, however, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith …”

Several years ago I noticed the grey hair on the one hand and the absence of hair on the other, and I realised time was marching on. I felt like I was entering the last major phase of my life and I wanted to end well. I was doing a kind of life review, and I wanted to be able to say something like what Paul had said.

What, though, might ending well actually look like in terms of any given life today? That, of course, depends on a person's value structures and beliefs what is important. The more material a person is, the less he or she will value such things as authenticity and character; the more ethereal a person is the less he or she is interested in having boats, the most “in vogue” clothing, or getting a hefty bonus.

When I watch television evangelists and preachers, oddly enough, it seems like ending well is measured by a worldly yard stick receiving health and wealth, having some kind of monstrous ministry, being important (being somebody in the Christian world), maintaining an image that covers up human frailty and imperfection. What comes with that is dressing well and looking the part of success, manifesting a smile, and giving evidence of an “overflowing life.”

I don't believe that would be ending well.

In Edith Schaeffer's book, Affliction, she points to faith's hall of fame in the eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. In that chapter there are two wings in the hall of fame. Down the corridor on the left are all the people who believed for a miracle (for instance) and got one. They were spared suffering and loss, hunger and disease by virtue of the fact that they trusted God. However, down the corridor to the right are all the people who trusted God all the way to, and through, the loss, the disease, the miracle that never came, and the ultimate destruction that did.

I do not think most people would say that the corridor on the right gave examples of ending well; however, that is exactly what I mean by ending well. It does not state everything that ending well includes, but it certainly includes that. In other words, the thing is not to simply be a martyr, to die, but to endure the siege of the spirit that life often becomes and to have one's faith refined and one's character made more complete through endurance. This is what Christ's brother knew and indicated when he said, “Consider it joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you might be perfect and complete …” And the author of the letter to the Hebrews said, “ … let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us …” It is that race that Paul considered when he wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable … I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

That was the man who, reviewing his life near the end of his life, told his protégé Timothy, for whom he had become a mentor, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Indeed, he had run his race, and he ended well.

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Published September 27, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated September 27, 2011 at 9:07 am)

Reviewing life near the end

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