The Satisfaction of Living Freshly


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.

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