The purposeful life review: part two


In part two of his article, Professor William Damon discusses how conducting a life review using himself as a case study unveiled some revealing results regarding his own identity development.

The following story concludes my article ‘The purposeful life review’. In the first part of my article, available in the December/January 2020 issue of Psychology in Practice, I discuss ways in which autobiographical reflections can help build purpose and positive identity throughout the lifespan. In that essay, I draw on my own research on how people find purpose in life; on Erik Erikson’s concept of ego integrity; and on Robert Butler’s pioneering work on a structured ‘life review’ method. In this second part of the article, I try out the life review approach on my own case, exploring my feelings about a significant event in my own early life: being abandoned by my father at birth. This story is drawn from a book that I am writing about purposeful life reviews. The book explores many ways that my missing father’s life interacted with my own identity development. But the story in this article considers only one, seemingly insignificant area: the game of golf. It turns out, however, that this area is not as insignificant as it may appear, at least in terms of my quest to reconcile my feelings about my missing father with my quests for positive identity and ego integrity.

The full results of this process have taken me a book to convey. The book, which will be ready sometime next year, deals with how the process helped me answer vital questions I could never have answered without it, such as: How did this man, whom I never met, influence my early development? What would life have been like if he had returned? What strengths did I acquire in his absence? What capacities did I fail to acquire? What about my mother’s role in all this? What are the many outcomes of my life story that I should feel fortunate about? Do I have resentments or insecurities that I should recognise and reconcile?

These are weighty issues. It would be impossible to deal with them all here: I work through all these questions in the book. But one part of the story can be conveyed briefly, and it contains many of the themes of the larger story. Although the subject seems inconsequential – the game of golf – it illustrates the kind of value I found in conducting my broader life review.

The first source my daughter directed me to, when she informed me of her discovery about my father, was an oral history interview with one of my father’s colleagues in his last job. In the midst of a long interview, the colleague described my father in this way: ‘Phil [Damon] was a big, outgoing guy, a great golfer…’. The colleague went on to provide a wealth of details about my father’s career, his family, his life, and his death; but of all those fascinating facts, it was his comment about father’s golfing prowess that captured my initial attention. Right away, a mix of delight and resentment swept over me. My delight sprang from the idea that my very own father had mastered the challenging game of golf. My resentment sprang from realising I never had a chance to play the game with him.

I love golf. I’ve worked hard to improve my game, but I am self-taught and very far from being a ‘great golfer’. I never had lessons as a child and never had anyone to show me the right techniques. Why, I grumbled to myself as soon as I read those words in that interview, couldn’t my father at least have taught me golf? Couldn’t he have shown up, just once or twice, to teach me this skill that I yearned to acquire?

To the extent that I ever allowed myself to feel resentment about my father’s absence, it seemed to be located exactly there. Strangely, this resentment stood alone among the catalogue of grievances I might have felt. My father abandoned me and my mother. He never saw me, he never wrote to me, he never inquired about me, and he never saw to it that I knew anything about him. Yet I don’t recall ever feeling angry about this: my overall sentiment regarding my missing father was something like, ‘I’ve had a good run in life, I wouldn’t be here without him, so what’s there to complain about?’ But my reaction to the golf revelation proved to be an exception. Or perhaps this reaction was telling me something I never realised: I may not have been as anger-free as I had always assumed; nor, perhaps, had I been free of the costs that unacknowledged anger can bear. And here was one benefit of my life review: ridding myself of those costs meant admitting them to myself and placing them in the perspective of the ups-and-downs of my entire life story. 

And then another benefit popped up. Incredibly, I actually did manage to get a golf lesson from my father after all these years! It was a ‘distance-learning’ lesson, not in-person, but it felt gloriously welcome nevertheless. It arose after a visit with one of my father’s surviving friends, a charming Parisian-born lady who was a youthful 92 at the time I met her.

The lady’s graciousness to me on that visit bore two fruits. The first was a kind-hearted remark. In the midst of that meeting, she looked at me said, ‘You father would have liked you’. This was a modest enough compliment, but it proved powerful in its impact on me. It was something I must have longed to hear.

Her second gift came the week after our meeting. Back home, I received from her in the mail an assortment of black-and-white photos of my father in the 1950s, soon after he arrived on his new diplomatic assignment in Southeast Asia. Among the photos was a picture of my father on a Bangkok golf course, dressed in white garbs and surrounded by young caddies. The picture that the woman sent had caught my father in motion, taking a full swing at a ball with his wedge club. He had just completed the chip shot, a spray of grass and dirt from the shot still hanging in the air. It was my father’s pose that struck me. He was looking down at where the ball had been before he smacked it. If you are a golfer, you know how hard this is to do – and how important it is to do. The usual temptation is to follow the ball’s flight with your eyes to see if you have made a decent shot and whether the golf gods have given you a good bounce. Keeping your head down past the strike is the best way to increase the odds of a good shot, but it’s much easier said than done. It requires concentration, good habits, discipline, self-control, all the virtues called for by this most demanding game.

Now, looking at that old photo, I saw before me a vivid example of this laudatory golfing behaviour as performed by my father. This was the one and only lesson I would ever get from him. That lesson took. Ever since I implanted that picture in my mind, I’ve avoided looking up during my chip shots. My game scores have come down a stroke or two since then. I like to think that those better scores can be attributed to the photographic lesson my father gave me across more than a half-century.

In my life beyond the small but significant instance of golf, I was long in the dark about my loss of a father and how it happened, and the idea that I might have been lacking something important was slow to dawn on me. My obliviousness had upsides in preventing me from feeling sorry for myself and losing hold on the natural hopefulness and aspirations of youth. But now I can see that it led me to neglect deficiencies that were better addressed than ignored. Among the possibilities of a life review is the recognition that it is never too late to do this. 

My new book is about three journeys of discovery that captured my imagination over the past few years. The first is central to my professional work: a scientific quest to learn more about how people at all ages can find purposes that fulfil their lives. The second is personal but shared by virtually everyone who seeks a self-examined life: a quest to make sense of my life story in a way that integrates its past, present and future elements, and that provides a basis for affirmation rather than regret and despair. The third journey was unique to my own life story: a quest to learn more about the father I never knew. Fortunately, he left enough traces of himself to enable me to reconstruct a vivid portrait of him, a portrait that informs all my journeys of discovery, from the professional to the personal.

We never stop seeking answers to questions such as, ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘What am I like?’ ‘Why am I this way?’ and, most importantly, ‘Have I become the kind of person I really want to be?’ Answering such questions requires looking at our pasts, presents and futures, and integrating what we see into a coherent vision. I found that a purposeful life review provided an opportunity to revisit my understanding of where I’ve been, who I am, and where I wish to go in my future. In the process, I hope to find a route to the stronger, truer and more life-affirming identity that Erikson envisioned in his evocative writings on ego integrity.

William Damon is Professor at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. Damon’s books include Some Do Care (with Anne Colby); Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); and The Path to Purpose. Damon is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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About Author

William Damon

William Damon is Professor at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. Damon’s books include Some Do Care (with Anne Colby); Good Work (with Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi); and The Path to Purpose. Damon is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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