Telling one’s own story has become recognised as therapeutic – particularly in the context of ageing and palliative care. Indeed, older people can be extremely interesting and inspirational. This was recognised as early as 1961: ‘Far from living in the past or wandering, as was thought, older people were engaged in the important psychological task of coming to terms with the life they had lived. They sought to make amends for acts of omission and commission, resolve conflicts, and reconcile alienated relationships’ (quote in Pat McNees, ‘The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities’, www.comfortdying.com/ . . 2009 ).
If nothing else, ‘setting the record straight’ can bring a sense of closure and peace. But that tends to be in the context of close family and friends who are all keen to gain closure and peace. Further, autobiographical writing intended as therapy may not be directed at a wide audience. It’s a little different when one goes to a school reunion. There, one can be confronted by people and events that may not have been close, pleasant, or even personally relevant at the time. At a school reunion there is no guarantee that past events will not be amplified or distorted. So what is it that makes school reunions interesting to so many?
Undoubtedly love of nostalgia and reminiscence are motivating, as are love of friendship and networking. Indeed, the vibe at my 50-year high school reunion was very open and friendly – in fact, much like the feeling, I imagine, of telling one’s story (or turning it into a document) to an ageing family group.
Maybe the attendees at my last reunion were less troubled by the past than some of those who did not attend. For whatever reasons, all those who attended this last school reunion seemed delighted to be among a very old peer group. There did not appear to be much remembering of conflict or unhappiness. As one of our old teachers remarked, the level of coherence of this particular group is unusual for school reunions. Perhaps the late sixties in Canberra was just an unusually happy time for most of us. Certainly we all benefited from the cultural change that was widespread at the time, and we benefited from the relatively high levels of school funding for schools in the ACT.
Nonetheless, I would like to think that ‘time heals all wounds’ – unless of course those wounds be heinous. My high school years in the early to late sixties were not blighted by a holocaust, or a war. But domestic violence, alcoholism and delinquency (of many types) were present in Canberra at the time - and at the High School, and afterwards. We all remembered the burning of the local Primary School, and some remembered the attempted safe cracking at the High School. We all remembered fighting with someone (and being infatuated with someone else). We remembered sport, and we remembered the school dog. It was not always a bed of roses by any means, yet those I spoke with remembered a time of tolerance, with many enlightened teachers, and many dalliances. We all were pleased to be back together again, briefly perhaps, but back together. Just like members of the proverbial rock band.
I suspect that school reunions are like red wine: they improve with age and can induce altered states of consciousness. The thing is one can’t be absolutely sure how good one’s memories are. As psychologists have recently pointed out, some memories may be ‘false’ – capable of being induced by external suggestion, or our own creativity.
How many shades of grey are there? One might be suffering from ‘prestige enhancing memory distortions’, or ‘severely deficient autobiographical memory syndrome’, or perhaps even ‘memory blindness’. Perhaps we were stressed at the time. Neuroscientists and psychologists are finding individual memory to be a very fallible process (see, for example, New Scientist, ‘The Grand Memory Illusion’, 27 October 2018, p.p. 31-41).
When one starts to factor group processes in, things get even more complex. Some memories are of other people’s recollections and possibly memories of conversations with others about events that nobody may have witnessed. This is the stuff of myth making, rumour mongering and gossip – all unavoidable elements in routine conversation.
Seven years ago I had never been to a school reunion. Forty-three years had elapsed since high school, and it often seemed as if I was picking up from just yesterday. This time I had a chance to deepen some old friendships and refresh other connections. I seemed to have moved beyond a ‘first re-contact’ situation, finding myself paying more attention to what some old friends had made of their lives, and what passions were common – bird watching, photography, boating, and fishing, for example. I think this was a common experience for those of us new to ‘getting the band back together’. Generally, everybody seemed eager to tell their own story; getting older together seems to make the process all the more interesting.
From the rough numbers that I gathered, one further hypothesis seemed important: not only do women live longer than men, they are more likely to attend school reunions. Magically, however, this time the gender balance had become 50/50. Who knows what will happen next time around?