On a quiet afternoon while sitting in my office at Stanford, I got an unexpected phone call from my daughter that changed my understanding of both my life and my field of study. This was no small deal. I was in my 60s, with enough years behind me—one would think—to know who I was and how I got that way; and I had been writing about human development for almost three decades.

“Dad, I don’t know if I should be telling you about this,” she said. This got my attention. A young economist, my daughter was in South Africa on an assignment. Jet lag had kept her up late at night. She’d used her sleepless time to dig into some “family stuff” online—stuff that might interest me or might upset me, she didn’t know which.

During that sleepless night, she had become curious about a grandfather she never knew. That man was the father I never knew. In that life-changing phone call, my daughter introduced me to my father—not in person (he had been dead for 20 years), but as a person—a person with features I could gaze at in old black-and-white photos; a life story I could investigate; living friends and relatives I could meet; and traits of character I could uncover, analyze, and compare with my own.

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I had lived for over six decades without seeing a picture of him. Until college, all I knew about my father was that he was “missing in World War II.” I assumed he had died in action on some nameless European battlefield. In the midst of my college years, I heard otherwise, in cryptic information that my mother revealed to me in a side remark. But I had no interest in following up on anything I heard about my missing father. I was absorbed in my studies, then in my career, and then in my own growing family. I was not eager to get distracted by information about a man who clearly abandoned my mother and me as soon as I was born. Nor, as a developing young man, did I need a negative role model to identify with.

Now, after all those years, I was offered a glimpse of the actual man.

By the time of my daughter’s call, I was secure and settled enough to open myself to the reality of what my father was like and what happened to him when he did not return home after the war. I discovered that my father had a substantial career abroad after he abandoned my mother and me.

My discoveries cleared up a host of mysteries, confusions, regrets, and resentments that I had lived with, not always consciously, for most of my life. I tell the full story of my discoveries and how I dealt with them psychologically in my new book, A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present

The revelations about my father shook my sense of my own life’s trajectory to its foundations. I felt drawn into a reconsideration of where I came from and how I got to where I am now—a life review.

Conducting a life review

A “life review” is a method of examining our pasts by searching memories, interviewing friends and relatives, and retrieving archival documents, such as school and ancestry records. The method was developed by Robert Butler, a legendary psychiatrist who wrote a Pulitzer-prize-winning book on aging and became the National Institute on Aging’s first director. After Butler became a noted public figure, he did not have time to do further work on his life review method, but he left a number of descriptions of what he had in mind. I adopted Butler’s descriptions for the purpose of understanding how my life was influenced by my missing father.

Butler hypothesized that a life review can provide three personal benefits as we develop: 1) acceptance of the events and choices that have shaped our lives, fostering gratitude for the life we’ve been given, in place of self-doubt, regret, and resentment; 2) an authentic, and thus robust, understanding of who we are and how we got to be that way, leading to a well-grounded, stable self-identity; and 3) a clarity in the directions we wish to take our lives going forward, reflecting what we have learned from the experiences and purposes that have given our lives meaning in the past.

  • Finding Purpose Across the Lifespan

    This article is part of a GGSC initiative on “Finding Purpose Across the Lifespan,” supported by the John Templeton Foundation. In a series of articles, podcast episodes, and other resources, we’re exploring why and how to deepen your sense of purpose at different stages of life.

Butler believed that life reviews would promote “intellectual and personal growth, and wisdom” throughout the lifespan. Among the psychological benefits he noted were the resolution of old conflicts; an optimistic view of one’s future; “a sense of serenity, pride in accomplishment”; a capacity to enjoy pleasures, such as humor, love, nature, and contemplation; and “an acceptance of the life cycle, the universe, and the generations.” By finding the positive benefits of earlier experiences—including experiences that may have appeared unfortunate at the time—we can affirm the value of our lives and chart a hopeful path forward. As Butler wrote: “One’s life does not have to have been a ‘success’ in the popular sense of the word. People take pride in a feeling of having done their best . . . and sometimes from simply having survived against terrible odds.”

In my application of the life review method, I examined old memories, taking notes on whatever I could recall; I retrieved my old school records and my father’s; I contacted friends and relatives who knew me and my family when I was young; I met with my father’s still-living friends and relatives and interviewed them about what they knew; I searched historical archives for records of my father’s military and foreign service; and I used the internet to locate newfound family members. Where possible, I validated the information I uncovered by cross-checking the accounts across my disparate sources.

My life review uncovered a wealth of insights about how I developed my interests, skills, beliefs, and personal characteristics. Most startlingly, I found that my father attended the same private high school that I attended. It turned out that my mother, who never in her life spoke with me about my father, had arranged a scholarship for me to follow my father’s educational path. It was a choice that always seemed mysterious to me, because I grew up in less-than-privileged circles where no one knew anything about such a path. This also revealed something to me about my mother’s parental sense: Broken though her marriage was, she guided her only child in a direction she had learned about from her missing husband and believed would be valuable for me.

During my life review, I determined that, because of my intentional obliviousness, I missed opportunities to meet my father and his family when I was young. The review exposed mistakes I made. For example, I avoided the difficult conversations with my mother that would have clarified truths about my father in the now-irretrievable years before my mother passed. I now needed to come to terms with these regrets; and my life review helped with that, too. It also helped me deal with long-buried resentments arising from my father abandoning me at birth.

The title of my new book (A Round of Golf with My Father) symbolizes the way my life review helped me recognize and get past those buried resentments. One of the things that my daughter found out about my father was that he was a great golfer. I love golf but am by no means a great golfer. This particular revelation opened a window on resentments I never allowed myself to recognize. Why couldn’t my father have come around once or twice to teach me golf? Why didn’t I get a chance to learn the game from this “great golfer” who was my very own father? Golfing is a small matter in relation to all the other capacities that fathers can teach sons, but for me it was emblematic of everything I missed in growing up without a father—and it was the canary in the coal mine of my emotional discomforts.

This essay is adapted from William Damon’s new book, A Round of Golf with My Father: The New Psychology of Exploring Your Past to Make Peace with Your Present (Templeton Press, 2021, 224 pages)

But my life review discoveries gave me a way to resolve those discomforts. A newfound cousin phoned me one day to tell me that hanging in an old family garage was a set of golf clubs that belonged to my father when he was young. He shipped me the clubs that very week, and when I opened the old golf bag, I found a filled-out scorecard from a course that my father played on in his youth. So I journeyed to that course and played against my father’s card, imaging that he was there at my side.

My secondhand encounter with my father’s early golf talent gave me great satisfaction. When I realized how well he had done on a course that I now had played on myself, I felt proud and redeemed: proud as anyone is when someone close to them accomplishes something notable, and redeemed from my concerns that the man who fathered me had nothing to his credit. This, of course, was emblematic of more significant discoveries I made regarding his larger contributions to the world. My imaginary golf pairing with my father created a thread of felt connection with him. My research on my father’s life—especially on his courageous war service and his career as a Foreign Service officer—provided me with a path for respecting him and eventually forgiving him. Forgiveness, as we know from recent research, is a remedy for peace of mind.

I came to wish that I had started my life review earlier. I lived too long with mistaken notions about my schooling path that—thanks to the unique extracurricular opportunities it offered to develop my interests in research and writing—led me to my vocational purpose. I also had lived too long with unresolved feelings and resentments about growing up fatherless. The information that my life review uncovered resolved those feelings, revealing the truth about my father, correcting my false assumptions about my own developmental trajectory, and enhancing my present-day family relationships.

Connecting past and future

In my professional life as a scholar of human development, the life review process was a new direction. My major work has been on the development of purpose in life. Purpose is future-oriented: Purposeful people look ahead to goals they seek to accomplish over the long haul. The power of purpose lies in the strengths that forward-looking commitments bring: motivation, energy, hope, and resilience.

Purpose is an example of how a person’s future aspirations can shape their self-development. This is a liberating point: Our thoughts and our imaginations give us personal agency over the direction our lives and our identities will take. By imagining hopeful future prospects, we can shape ourselves in agentic and adaptive ways. We are “drawn into the future” by the power of our imaginations, and, in the end, this is what shapes our destinies.

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Yet what I now realize is turning away from the past is not the best way to a purposeful future. We can’t learn lessons from past misfortunes until we openly recognize them. We can’t unburden ourselves from past regrets and resentments unless we confront them. And, in a positive sense, our past accomplishments contain rich troves of ideas about what we’re capable of doing, what’s given us satisfaction, who we’ve become, and who we can aspire to be in the years to come—in short, about our prospects for future life-fulfilling purposes.

Everyone has a past. The longer we live, the more past we have to think about; but even a young person has a history of accomplishments, satisfactions, regrets, misfortunes, and mistakes to mull over. Making sense out of this history is essential for present stability and future guidance. Just as with world history, those who ignore personal history are doomed to repeat old errors. And there is no way to permanently erase what we have lived through. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead; it is not even past.”

There is a paradox at the heart of a life review. The ability to look forward in a confident, well-guided manner requires looking back in an intentional and open way, acknowledging and coming to terms with positive and negative occurrences, with our successes and failures, with our regrets and resentments, accomplishments and aspirations. Past, present, and future cannot be separated like walled-off compartments on a moving train. The passages between them are best kept open, and the dynamic interactions among them can help us, as conductors, shape the direction of our own moving trains.

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