Photo by Morgan Von Gunten on Unsplash

Reminiscing about the past is inevitable, especially if a person is facing a terminal illness. In doing so, we look at decisions made and things done, as well as the reasons for them. Something I was consistently struck with during my many years of practice was what I called the “player piano effect”. Oftentimes, we repeatedly do things because of some imperative we listen to, such as turning off lights when we leave a room, etc. Sometimes, the things that we do or have done are due to what others have told us. And sometimes, these things were misinterpreted or taken out of context or make no sense. For instance, if a person talked about some imperative they needed to do that was counter-productive, I would ask them to close their eyes and listen for whose voice told them to do it. You would be amazed at the many times it was one of their parents’ voices, and they realized that it wasn’t a decision they had made on their own.

Why am I explaining this? Let me give a personal example. I find it very difficult to relax and it has always been that way for me. I always have to be doing something or thinking about something. Even my husband has noticed that I can’t sit still and am always twitching to be doing something. When I searched my memory for the root of this, I discovered that when I was young, my beloved father sometimes caught me “doing nothing” or relaxing, he would remind me that there was always something to do. What I internalized from that was that relaxing (or “doing nothing”) was somehow wrong, that “there was always something to do.” I realized that it would never have been his intent for me never to relax. Consequently, I consistently remind myself that relaxing is okay, something that is actually good for me, or anyone.

I liken these automatic thoughts to a player piano that has all of these rules or admonitions written on it. It plays automatically when we come to certain situations and we follow through on what it tells us to do, unquestioningly. In the process of a life review at any point in our lives, it is important to seek out where we got these life rules and revise them, if necessary. If they are not helpful or in fact counter-productive, it is important to examine and revise them, essentially rewriting what plays in our minds’ “player piano.”

Why this is so important is that at any time in life, we should be mindful of the reasons for what we do. It shouldn’t just be when a person is facing their mortality. We can change our life’s trajectories at any point to make them happier, better, and more fulfilling. This mindfulness is a perfect antidote to stress, anxiety, and burnout. It allows a person to focus on the causes of these feelings and do something about them in order to reduce experiencing them. It helps people to become more aware, to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings, and to approach or assess situations non-judgmentally. In the process, it helps reduce ruminating about past negative experiences that gets in the way of “thinking straight” and processing emotions.

As I see it, just like my “filing cabinet of past memories”, processing and letting go of past negative emotions and faulty “player piano” life rules is a very freeing experience. It frees up energy to be directed at a positive life of good experiences, unburdened by the past.

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KLP

As a now-retired psychologist, I was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and am currently undergoing chemotherapy to hopefully prolong my life.