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This essay on life lessons learned from the Kafka Museum and making the most of the rest of your life was originally published in ‘Aging Wisely. Wisdom of Our Elders’ edited by Irving Silverman and Ellen Beth Siegel and is republished in Lifespark Weekly with permission from the editors.
On a recent trip to Prague I had the opportunity to visit a museum devoted to memorabilia and writing of Franz Kafka—one of the most significant existential thinkers of the 20th century.
As a clinician and a human being, I’ve found that one of the most common concerns people express is that they will in some way fail to fulfill their true destiny, neglect their most authentic passions, or fall short of their full potential in life.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
Aside from reading a few pages of Metamorphosis (one of his most popular works) and watching a few minutes of Jeremy Iron’s 1991 portrayal of the man, I really didn’t know much about Kafka. But I entered with open mind and heart to pay homage to this soul who inspired so many.
The museum was truly a tribute to Kafka’s worldview, displaying rows of softly lit file drawers, interspersed with open, glass-covered drawers that contained pictures, handwritten notes, and other memorabilia from his life. This arrangement was perhaps a nod to Kafka’s “double-life,” as he put it, working in an office setting as an insurance attorney, by day, and writing mind-bending masterpieces, by night.
This frustration between the bureaucratic and mundane existence of Kafka’s everyday life, coupled with his passion for free thought and self-expression, haunted him until his death from tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40. In his last letter, however, he seemed to gain some insight into this tension, which most often played out in long-standing conflicts with his father and the traditional values that he represented. As he began to soften toward his father, Kafka had a vision of a wall. But it was no longer seen as an impediment. He wrote, “It is not a shady wall; it is life, dear, sweet life pressed into wall form.” Kafka could then see a “city in the distance” but has the sense that somehow he has arrived too early.
As a clinician and a human being, I’ve found that one of the most common concerns people express, both at younger and older life stages, is that they will in some way fail to fulfill their true destiny, neglect their most authentic passions, or fall short of their full potential in life. Like Kafka, they fear that they’ll arrive too early at the city in the distance and leave something in their life unfinished, unsaid, or unresolved.
Dignity Therapy, developed by Dr. Harvey Chochivov (2012), is one way of eliciting conversations with people about the meaning they’ve made in their life, the lessons they’ve learned, and their deepest concerns for the future.
In other words, it’s a form of therapy that gets people to talk about the aspects of their lives that are most important. These conversations can cover a range of topics, but particularly at the end-of-life, they often center on those things that feel most unfinished, unsaid, or unresolved.
The ultimate aim of the therapy is to give people the space to have honest dialogue about what matters most to them and to record the lessons learned from a life for future generations. Since these topics are often emotionally charged and difficult to discuss, having some organization and structure, like in Dignity Therapy, is useful. Though initially developed for dying patients with a foreshortened future, the prompts and questions used in Dignity Therapy could be tremendously valuable for any person regardless of how long (or short) their future is perceived to be.
Typically, a skilled interviewer will walk patients and their family through the Dignity Therapy protocol. And it’s worth noting here, that it’s only in this structured and manualized form that Dignity Therapy has been shown to improve mental health outcomes. Nevertheless, readers may still wish to consider the questions that are raised in Dignity Therapy, by themselves or with close confidants, simply for their own personal edification.
Paraphrasing and expanding upon the Dignity Therapy protocol, these questions include:
1) What do you most want to say to the people that you love in your life? What are your hopes and dreams for them?
Pretend that this is the only moment that you have to say it to them. Tomorrow or even in 10 minutes, it may be too late.
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2) Now consider this. What might you have to lose or to gain by reaching out to the people you are thinking of and telling them how you feel?
How might you phrase it to them in a way that minimizes any perceived risks and maximizes possibilities for connection and understanding?
3) When you think back across your entire life, what do you believe are the most important lessons that you’ve learned?
Based on those lessons, what words of wisdom or advice do you have for the people in your life and for future generations? Some of these may be hard lessons, and careful phrasing of the message is crucial, especially if you plan to deliver it to an audience of more than one.
4) Taking stock of your life so far, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
If you had to write your own eulogy today, what would you most want people to know about you? What have you stood for in your life? What stories and personal experiences best illustrate the values you have embodied during your time on planet Earth?
The answers to such questions are, of course, highly subjective and personal. However, I believe the goal is the same for all travelers. We must not leave anything on the table. Or else, like Kafka, we may arrive at our city in the distance before our time.
So, considering the themes raised here, what do you most want to say to the people that you care about? Tell us in the comments below.