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Healthy Remembering and Resilience: How the Past Can Lead to a Hopeful Future

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This year my husband Tom and I handed out PlayDoh for Halloween. I kept a few packages for myself, because there is something about the smell and the texture that immediately brings me back to my own childhood—especially to memories of trudging through deep snow, which was normal for Trick or Treating in Colorado Springs in the 1960s. 

Reminiscing can be so enjoyable, but quite often it makes me wistful and creates a “stuck” feeling, especially when I’m facing the unknowns of the future.

I have been reflecting on what it means to be resilient lately, both in light of the pandemic, but also in light of the pain many church communities are experiencing as they collectively age and worry about the future of their congregation. What helps build resilience in both individuals and communities? And how might remembering the past actually propel us into a more hopeful future?

Healthy Remembering

I attended a conference on aging a few years ago where the keynote speaker, Paul T.P. Wong, shared his research titled What Types of Reminiscence Are Associated with Successful Aging?. Wong spoke about healthy remembering that leads to successful aging—which I think applies both to individuals in the third third of life and to congregations who are possibly facing the end of their life together. Healthy reminiscing, Wong says, does three things:

  • integrates painful experiences

  • recalls past success in overcoming difficulties

  • and passes the lessons learned on to the next generation.

In other words, as communities we would do well not to compare current ministry to (or try to relive) the glory days of burgeoning youth groups, overflow seating, and entire communities showing up for every church-run activity. Churches also need to remember the conflicts they had to work through when those same youth wanted more freedom, or when blended worship seemed to be an impossible construct, or when ministry leaders disagreed and had to work through those disagreements. 

As communities and individuals we need to recall both joyful and painful memories, remembering that God was present in both and continues to be with us as we face uncertain futures.

The Two Great Tasks of Aging

Janet Schaeffler, one of the authors of The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation, has observed that there are two great tasks of aging: one is to lean into or cultivate gratitude and the other is to work through forgiveness and reconciliation. 

These tasks invite us out of regret and into fulfillment, leading to lives that end well. Forgiveness and gratitude are essential to fulfillment, and they are made possible when we remember well and holistically. In many ways they are sacred tasks that allow us to bless others with our leave-taking. Again, this work belongs to both individuals and to the community as a whole.

Resilience refers to the capacity to recover from difficulties and to return to a healthy pre-crisis or pre-challenge state. Engagement in healthy remembering produces resilience because it leads to gratitude, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Healthy remembering can push back against bitterness and reconnect us to the joy of our salvation. It leads us to connection with God and God’s people, which is another significant way to build resilience. 

It was fun thinking about PlayDoh and my childhood in Colorado, but truth be told, the colors that are available today have greater variety and are much more vivid, reminding me that there are good things to look forward to, especially when I look forward to them through the eyes of faith in a faithful God.

Helpful Resources

Looking for more resources to support resilient aging? Here are some to check out:

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