“Let’s watch ‘What’s My Life?’” my grandmother, Regina Treitler, would say, wandering into the living room after dinner. She would turn on the RCA cabinet console TV and wait expectantly; that was the routine pretty much any evening. Now of course there was and has never been a program called “What’s My Life?”, my grandmother had simply combined the names of two game shows that were popular at the time, “What’s My Line?” and “You Bet Your Life”. Sometimes when she turned on the TV it was the former, sometimes it was the latter; but even if it was neither, generally, she was still satisfied.
There was a third program from the same era that my grandmother may have had in mind, an early entry in the reality TV genre called “This is Your Life”. While in the original TV show, the celebrity guest would before a live audience be guided through a life retrospective, Regina Treitler would not have needed someone else to guide her retrospective. She knew her life, and she directed it — as well as the life of her immediate and extended family — with unfailing certainty. After her husband’s furniture store in Dortmund, Germany was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933; after she planned her family’s escape from Germany in 1938; after she came ashore at Ellis Island that same fall; after she arranged a false marriage to bring more family members to America; after she badgered a Chicago public school to speed her children’s progress through the system; after she badgered her sons to select stable, professional careers and her daughter to select a good Jewish boy; after she took leadership of the local Pioneer Women chapter (the Labor Zionist women’s organization in the US) to work tirelessly for Israel; after all this, Regina Treitler’s show should have been called, not “What’s My Life?”, but “This Is My Life!”
Few of us can claim the kind of singleness of purpose that my grandmother had. Our direction will likely not be as planned, our motivations as clear, our energy as unflagging, our success as notable. What we can do however is to begin tracing the line that connects the times in our lives. And so responding to the question “What’s My Life?” is a good thing to do at regular intervals. It helps reveal both motivation and direction in the past that in the present may seem lost. It helps overcome doubt and fear and mark a path forward from the present. Responding to “What’s My Life?” can help in addressing the hardest question of all: the question of meaning. And responding to this last question will help in our reaching the end of life knowing what it is that we are leaving behind.