More on Writing a Life Review, Spinoza, and the Blind Turtle

My last blog was about the “how-to” of writing a life review, a memoir, an autobiography. But I have a little more to say. First, let me reiterate that you must write such a memoir for yourself – if you have any other audience in mind, it will not work. It took me a while to realize this, but now I realize that everything I write (including fiction) is in order to teach myself something, to memorialize something for myself, to figure out something for myself – and mostly the latter. Even this blog. It makes “viewer” statistics less important (good thing), and it makes me more honest.

Second, I dealt very lightly with what we should do with the bad things that surface, memories and emotions we have tried hard not to think about for so many years. If you have ever gone on an extended silent meditation retreat, you know that long periods of silence bring these memories back with a vengeance – and so does writing about the period in which they happened. Bad things caused by natural events or other people are, on the whole, easier to deal with than disasters we prompted with our own actions. And the worst are situations we caused that harmed others. But let’s go back to my favorite philosopher Spinoza – the one who told us that cheerfulness (refer to earlier blog) was the highest good – and hear what he has to say on repentance or regret: repentance is not a virtue… instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched. This is not to say that we should not learn from our mistakes through “true reflection or reason.” It is only to say that we should not let it take away from our power to live. He says that it is bad enough that we made an error in judgment; the second error would be to let it impede us forever. It is akin to the Buddha’s “second arrow”:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. (Sallatha Sutta)

The point of a written life review is not to shoot the second arrow; it is to pull out the first arrow and become reconciled to the scar it leaves behind. I am not saying this is easy, but I think it is worthwhile. Again the object is to bring reason, words, to bear on the unbearable and to move on with Spinoza’s “cheerfulness” and power.

Writing a memoir, life review, should not be a chore. It should be a joy. In All Passion Spent, Lady Slane calls “looking back on the girl she had once been” as the “last, supreme luxury…. She could lie back against death and examine life.” Old age has many benefits (yes, it does), but among them is that “last, supreme luxury” of reflection. Putting the words on paper is necessary for me so that they do not just glide away among the jetsam of my wandering mind. I recommend it.

And one more very important thing. Don’t think for a minute that your life is not worth examination, not worth telling. In the Chiggala Sutta, the Buddha tells the parable of a blind turtle swimming around in an endless sea. On the sea floats a yoke or ring (think life preserver). The blind turtle surfaces once in a hundred years, totally randomly. What are the chances that he will poke his head through that ring as he surfaces? Those are the odds of existence as a human being on the earth – a precious and unique opportunity, according to the Buddha. Your life is to be valued. Your tale is worth telling. We have all made mistakes; it is part of life. And, as the manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says, “Everything will be alright in the end so if it is not alright it is not the end.” It’s not over yet.

For a story about repentance, regrets, and the truth of the matter, you might try “The Iscariot.” Or you might look at your own life.

One thought on “More on Writing a Life Review, Spinoza, and the Blind Turtle

  1. Positive reflections are an essential part of Erikson’s 8th life stage, Ego Integrity vs Despair and finding myself in the middle of this stage wrote a whole chunk of such reflections across my life from the age of 19. It’s surprising what positive things you can find. Do try it👍

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s