by Signe Schaefer
Printed in Lilipoh, Summer 2004
If it were possible, would you want to erase painful memories from your life story? Or could remembering life experiences contribute to an understanding of destiny? Within the broad field of human development there is increasing interest in individual biography as the story of a human being in the process of becoming. Is there intention and meaning in this ongoing “life writing”? Can we learn to read the scripts of our lives, even as the story continues to unfold?
Finding inspiration from the insights of Rudolf Steiner on the nature of human life, this new biography work is taking many forms, and there are now trainings for biography workers in over a dozen countries. The profession is still finding its definition, but in their individual, and sometimes more specialized ways, the trainings offer an enhancement to fields such as medicine, adult education, social work, organization development, art therapy, counseling, parent support, or care for the elderly.
Work with biography can center around many different questions. For example, workshops might explore life phases and rhythms, or the role of gender in our life story. They could take up the challenge of relationships or work, or focus on an appreciation of different temperaments. They can explore the laws of karma. Whatever the theme, the common aim is to approach the riddle of a human life in practical ways – to enter the mystery through actual phenomena so that the deeper meaning can begin to speak.
Contemporary culture offers many limited images of what it means to be a a human being: we are portrayed as a smart animal, a not-too-smart machine, a lifestyle, a static, a thin and airbrushed physical body. These are, of course, all cliches, but they can undermine our sense of self-worth and our appreciation for individuality. We can easily fall into criticism of others and also feel ourselves as diminished or stuck victims of inadequate genes or arbitrary socialization.
But what if the many factors in our life story are not arbitrary, not simply bad or good luck? Biography work stems from the idea that each of us has an eternal “I”, a higher self, which reincarnates again and again to acquire ever new experiences on the path toward becoming a whole and balanced human being. We come into one life as a woman, another as a man, one within a certain cultural situation, another in a different ethnicity. We come to learn and to grow.
Biography work is built on the idea that out of the wisdom of the spirit experience in the time between death and rebirth, we enter life with certain themes, people, events and challenges that we intend to encounter. Generally speaking, once we are on earth, we have no memory of our spirit-inspired intentions, although occasionally we may feel an immediate connection to someone or a strong sense that some situation is “mine”. It is on earth that our destiny opportunities come alive, How will we encounter the given – an illness, a job loss, an attraction, an inheritance? What we do with what destiny offers is a mark of our development. Can we step ever more responsibly, and freely, into the authorship of our lives?
There are universal laws at work in human development, yet they play themselves out in unique ways for every individual. What deeper meaning accompanies the loss of a child’s baby teeth, or the advent of puberty? Why are the late twenties so often a challenging time? What lies behind the experience of a mid-life crisis? In a biography workshop on might hear of the seven year life rhythms, or of the influences of different planets: this provides a backgound from which to approach the mystery of every individual human being.
In addition to considering various images of human development, a biography workshop would also include artistic exercises. Often quiet work with pastels, crayons or clay opens up a deeper memory source. Sharing these exercises in small groups encourages further remembering. Practice in seeing our life events as a stranger might have viewed them, can let the essential learning offered to our “I” shine though the details of an experience. Then gratitude for even the most painful events may become possible.
While much of twentieth century psychology focused on the individual looking within, Rudolf Steiner encouraged finding the self by looking out – into the world – while finding the world by looking within. A deep truth lies behind such an injunction. Can we trust that by observing a tree through the seasons with pastels, pencil or charcoal, we can gain insight into our own development? Or that by listening to another person describe a life event, our own experiences come into clearer focus?
In a biography workshop we have the opportunity to practice genuine interest and reverence toward the mystery of another’s life story without getting caught in automatic sympathies and antipathies, which really only tell us about ourselves. When this is possible, we experience the healing that comes though genuine encounter.
In a less intense way than a workshop setting, biography sharing can also be an invaluable aid in building community. For example, if at a ninth grade parents’ evening the teacher and parents all share what they remember about being fourteen, there will be little need to give a lecture on adolescence. All the awkwardness, anxiety, excitement, temptation and hope will be there in the room. A deeper conversation about the needs of this particular class will be possible, and the adults will also have warmed to each other in very real ways.
There are endless possibilities for biography sharing exercises. Groups of colleagues or friends can occasionally make time for exchanges around a particular life question: What was an ideal that awoke for you in your teenage years? Describe an obstacle you have overcome. Sharing our responses to such questions can help us avoid trapping each other within fixed mental pictures or letting irritations become entrenched. It is very difficult to really dislike or dismiss other people when we have heard them tell some aspect of their life story, when we have experienced this striving human being in the process of becoming.
Whether sharing exercises or as an extended study of human life, working with biography is deepening and enlivening. As an antidote to the many representations of virtual life which our culture offers, exploring real experiences and memories becomes ever more important. When we reflect on our biographies and those of others, we can find courage and enthusiasm to continue evolving these wonder-filled and never-ending stories.