My parents are both 87. Over the last few years I have had the chance to observe how, each in their own way, they are stuck in the past. My father’s extraordinary attachment to his work and my mother’s recounting of past incidents.
Reminiscing is OK I think
As we get near the end of our lives, my parents are both 87, we know that we won’t be having a family or life project. Our energy diminishes. And if we have done our best with what we have had then we will likely feel a good deal of satisfaction with the life we have lived.
As we come to terms with our dying it makes sense to remember the good times – by ourselves or with others. This is a pleasure, readily available at no cost.
Clinging to the Past
Reminiscing is a current pleasure. It is different to ‘living in the past’ I think.
The difference I think is that ‘living in the past’ is like re-running tapes. When we are living in the past, curiously, we are less engaged with the past. I think ‘living in the past’ means something like rehearsing the same judgements and re-experiencing the same feelings.
Reminiscing has to do with bringing the past experience to mind, and responding to it freshly. The feelings will likely be the same but they are our current feelings, not a re-run of our old feelings.
Making the Past Present
To not live in the past means encountering our memory and asking what we think and feel about it, here and now. It is making the past incident freshly present to us – whether we are by ourselves or talking it over with others. Reminiscing includes the sensory details, living in the past tends to leave these out and rehearse judgements.
Updating the Past
Being stuck in the rehearsing of the past does not happen only in old age. It is difficult to update ingrained attitudes and deal with the impact of past trauma. It is quite common for us to stick with the emotional world we knew at eight years old. By this I mean that usually by age eight, and certainly by age twelve, we had felt answers to the questions:
- Who am I?
- Who are these others?
- How do I thrive/survive?
I don’t mean to suggest that there can’t be much that is admirable, worthy and enjoyable in our past. I do want to suggest that we don’t want to let a twelve year old, or eight year old, run our lives. It isn’t that our twelve or eight year old self, isn’t worthy of respect and love; it isn’t that they are bad or crazy – they did the best they could with what they had; but they simply didn’t know as much as us – they had limited experience.
Unfortunately we often don’t modify our early attitudes, beliefs and feelings in light of later experience. To get a feeling for this try the following exercise:
Complete these sentences.
- I am . . . I know this because . . .
- Others are . . . I know this because . . .
- The way to survive (or thrive) in this world is . . . I know this because . . .
This will give you a sense of how your current beliefs, attitudes and feelings are based on past experiences.
If you would like to then you can take the next step. Look for evidence in your own life and the life of others you know that contradicts what you know about yourself, others and how to thrive or survive.
- I used to believe that I was useless at all sports but found I was very good for a beginner at lawn bowls (I only played it one afternoon).
- I used to think that if I explained my thoughts and feelings abstractly then people would be able to relate to them (after all their thoughts and feelings were different to mine). I discovered that they related more easily to me when I expressed what was most vividly personal.
- I used to think that blogging was about good information, explained well. I learnt that people also value a sense of personal connection, the feeling that they know the blogger.
These are simple and not terribly deep examples. The updating we need to do can be quite deep and take a while; I wanted to use simple examples to show how common it is to stick with our eight or twelve year old’s view of the world.
Living Until We Die
When we are authentically present to our experience then there is a freshness (even if what we are doing is remembering or reminiscing). Even if the experience is a difficult one. Even if it takes time and effort. To respond genuinely to our experience means we won’t feel stale and jaded.
Each day brings us a new day – even if we wake up in the same house, with the same friends and family, and do roughly the same things.
Here is one idea (you may have lots of others) for getting a sense of freshness about familiar things. Choose something you do frequently (the washing up, a walk you routinely do, or whatever).
Notice one thing new, or do something slightly differently.
- Wash the plates and cups in a different order (yes, I do them in the same order, maybe you don’t)
- Notice something different on your walk – look in a different direction as you round a corner, or whatever it may be.
When we know that we can have freshness in these little things it is possible to move on to bigger things if we wish to or feel we need to.
And so we need not get stuck in our past, the prisoner of our routines and our past. We can live up until the moment that we die.