Recently while at breakfast with a few friends, one of them was telling us about his mother- in-law’s estate sale that had taken place as a result of her move to an independent living facility. He was talking about all of the “things” that were in the sale, items accumulated throughout his mother and father-in-law’s lifetime, causing him to conclude that all these “things” just didn’t seem to matter since they were sold off or given away to strangers.
About the same time, another friend told us about his wife, Janice, who had been helping a few elderly people in a local senior living community to write their story using the Guided Autobiography process. The contrast couldn’t have been more apparent. On the one hand, there were “things” that had to be gotten rid of because a woman was needing to downsize. Although at one time those things were important to her and her husband, now they just needed to be disposed of. And on the other hand, there were the real-life stories of people, being put down on paper to be delighted in and shared with their friends and family.Our stories matter, and learning the story of someone is a great way to better understand and appreciate them. I have felt this personally in our small group as a result of our pastor’s encouragement to have one person each week tell their story, inviting them to bring a significant photo to pass around while sharing. This was another reason Janice’s new endeavor resonated with me.
Throughout Janice’s life, she has had three consistent interests – a love for older people and a desire for them to remember their value, writing letters and poems to those whom she loves, and connecting with others on a heart-level. She tells of going on a sabbatical in 2016, and taking time to research how she might be able to combine these three passions to enrich the lives of others. During that time, she came across the book, “Telling Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups” by James E. Birren. She was intrigued by what she learned in the book, and decided to put it into practice by conducting a pilot program with six participants at a local senior living community. At the end of the program, all six of the participants had 20 pages of their life stories to savor and share with others. She told me that often when one of the participants shared a memory it would trigger a long forgotten memory in another. After seeing the value in helping people write their stories, Janice completed training to become a certified Guided Autobiography (GAB) instructor from the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies.
This method of autobiographical writing isn’t simply a chronological recounting of lives. Instead it was focused on themes. Each week, participants write on a different universal life theme including branching points, family, work, death, gender, etc. These themes, along with the priming questions provided, help to stimulate memories. Participants write two pages on each theme at home and read it to the group and experience connection with others as a result. I loved hearing that the participants in the pilot group had a “bounce in their step” as they recounted memories, perhaps long hidden, and realized writing them down was not only doable, but enjoyable. Most of all, they have the option of providing their friends and family (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc.) with a written legacy of heart-felt stories. Janice shared about some of the feedback that she received when she wrote her own story. In particular, people told her that her faith came through no matter what theme she was writing about. She told me that her story is a way in which she can share the Gospel with others. Our stories can also make clear to us and others how God has been working in our stories, just as he was in the life of Joseph (Genesis 50:20).
I was really encouraged hearing about the work Janice is doing. The “things” we collect, may mean much to us now, but one day they won’t. They will just be looked at as something that we, or someone else, will need to dispose of. However, your story, how God has worked in your life, will always matter. No matter what stage of life you are in, you can find hope in your story. If you are interested in working with Janice to write your story using the Guided Autobiography process, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org