North/South Lake Campground. Photo by Katie Priest

Just like the transformations unfolding in the Midwestern woods all around us this time of year, it’s autumn for me now.  The canopy of walnut, boxelder maple, and hackberry in my backyard are just beginning to show highlights that will crescendo into a total makeover by mid-October.  It’s already mid-October for me.  The makeover is complete.  You would think that my Anderson Cooper, white, snow-on-the-roof over-story would indicate that my own personal winter’s solstice has commenced.  Rather, I am clinging tenaciously to the self-serving belief that somehow Middle-age stretches all the way into the sixth decade of life.  Hence, it’s “autumn for me now.”  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

The signature events of a life in autumn are unmistakable.  Like the walnuts in my backyard, my children have released from the tree.  One parent has died, and the other parent who used to provide the care, now requires it.  It’s Fall in my life.

“How’d you spend your summer?” is an almost instinctual question in the early Fall classroom.  I find a similar conversational compulsion in my fellow autumnal colleagues. There is a common species of conversation that shows up when gathered with others who have passed the autumnal equinox.  Things that happened in the spring and summer of life become objects of reflection all over again.  At this stage of life, it’s not so much a conversation of “how” you spent the summer season of your life.  It’s more like, in light of the wisdom you’ve accumulatedthrough life’s seasons, what do you make of those earlier experiences from this vantage point?

Existential psychology has noticed that the drive for meaning is the crowning motivator of human behavior.  We are purposive creatures.  Whenever a significant event happens, human beings have an insatiable need to mine that event for meaning and purpose.  And the meaning that a person wraps around significant events will, in large measure, determine how well that person will function in their lives.  Deficit-focused meanings will generally yield results that limit possibilities.  Problem saturated narratives will by-and-large yield future problems.  

Over many a Labor Day weekend, my brothers and I gather at a familiar lake cabin where we’ve closed out decades worth of summers.  The well-worn subject of my mom and dad’s divorce comes up from time-to-time.  A couple of summers ago, I remember my brother Mike sharing an observation seasoned by years of experience and reflection.  “You can tell how much mom and dad loved each other.  You have to really love somebody a lot to hate them that much.”  Decades removed from the pain of those years, and seasoned by the experiences of his own life, Mike was able to get a new look at an old experience.  A knowing laugh was exchanged between Bob, Mike, and me as we took note of the truth of what he’d just said.  Autumnal Mike was able to discern something shiny and true in the midst of a pretty dark section of our childhood experience.  

In this autumnal section of my life as an adult, and a counselor, I have come to appreciate the importance of returning to those moments in an earlier season of life that were tinged with suffering.  While reviewing those moments, it is important to look for any redemptive quality that shines out of those experiences:  a personal strength that revealed itself, a person of blessing who came to support, a hidden meaning that pain surfaced.  From the vantage point of autumn, other blessings come from an exercise like this.  Self-compassion and even self-forgiveness for the deficits in an earlier version of me that could not see things so clearly, or whose skill set was not developed.  

For thousands of years, spiritually committed people have stilled themselves and entered into the sacred stories of their scriptures to find meaning.  This week, could you carve out some time to reflect back to time in your life where the musical accompaniment to it was set in a minor key?  While there, look for any shred of strength, meaning, support, love, or lessons that came from that moment.  Look for old assumptions of deficit or self-blame that could dissolve in the clarity of autumn light.  At the end of this exercise, could you find an autumn or winter-time friend with the wisdom and experience to assist you in appropriating the new meanings that were uncovered?    

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