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November is a month of remembrance in many countries. North American nations celebrate Memorial Day and Remembrance Day, which are devoted to commemorating fallen soldiers and surviving veterans. Catholics around the world celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, the holidays which focus on remembering the departed loved ones and pondering one’s own mortality.

Cultivating memories about the departed inspires thinking about our own place in the world. It encourages stock-taking and pondering one’s future. Małgorzata Godlewska, a social psychologist from SWPS University, explains how family history and life stories of the departed family members contribute to the creation of our own identity.

Time of Remembrance

The way we celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day is influenced by individual factors, such as one’s world-view, religion, and personal situation in a given phase of life. Catholics celebrate these holidays as dictated by their religion and tradition. They pay their respects to the deceased by visiting cemeteries and decorating graves with flowers and candles. They prey and participate in special masses at the church. People who do not identify strongly with this tradition, often replace these rituals with other forms of remembrance. For example, they visit their hometowns or peruse family photo albums, reminiscing about the loved ones, who have passed away.

During this special time of year, the society is united in the spirit of remembrance. On the one hand remembrance is an expression of respect towards the departed and on the other hand it is an identity building element. Remembering our ancestors helps to define our own identity in the context of the family heritage and in relation to the traits, talents or élan vital of our predecessors. While we go through the process of contemplating the lives of the departed family members and discovering who they were, where they came from, and what kind of people they were, we also learn something important about ourselves. The awareness that we belong to a group of people, who often faced critical situations and despite everything managed to survive, strengthens our self-esteem and the belief in our own effectiveness. It fosters the “I can” attitude.

Remembering outstanding citizens and renowned people, such as artists, athletes, social activists, and political figures is conducive to building national identity. When visiting their graves, enjoying their works of art (e.g. books, movies, and music), we feel pride of belonging to the same community. We are also inspired by these figures, if we share similar interests. They help us to believe in our own abilities and we feel that someone has already blazed the way in this area.

While we go through the process of contemplating the lives of the departed family members and discovering who they were, where they came from, and what kind of people they were, we also learn something important about ourselves. The awareness that we belong to a group of people, who often faced critical situations and despite everything managed to survive, strengthens our self-esteem and the belief in our own effectiveness. It fosters the “I can” attitude.

 

Confronting Mortality

One of the most difficult experiences that we are facing while consciously celebrating All Saints and All Souls Days is confrontation with our own mortality. People who are critically ill, their care givers, and people who have recently lost a loved one experience this realization especially acutely. Brushes with death can often be pivotal for individuals, because sometimes people appreciate life not when they are happy, but when they are suffering. Pain changes the area of the comfort zone and pushes us to cross the established boundaries.

A confrontation with one’s own mortality impacts the vision of one’s life and changes the hierarchy of values and personal goals. Faced with limited time, one does not want to waste it on unimportant matters. Changes that people make as the result of this process pertain to the most important aspects of their lives, including personal relationships, family, and career. This way the recognition of one’s own mortality becomes a spark of a new phase of life. Just as Stephen Levine wrote: “The confrontation with death tunes us deeply to the life we imagine we will lose with the extinction of the body.”

 

258 Małgorzata Godlewska

About the Author

Małgorzata Godlewska is a social psychologist and academic at SWPS University. Her professional interests include the unconscious and intuitive information processing, i.e. the role of knowledge that we poses and use unconsciously.

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