What is it about the past that makes it seem so much more fun than the present? Every generation draws battle lines with such gems as “when I was a kid” or “back in my day”. I have touched on various topics that take me back to yesteryear and I have very much enjoyed the trips down memory lane. But were they really better times than now? Or is it because responsibility was less, the amount of bills were smaller and the pressures of life were minor? Maybe it’s the fact that I can never return to those days so I long for them more and more. You know, you always want what you can’t have. For me, like most, the past is memorable and fun, the present is usually a struggle and the future is just plain scary. But maybe in that one sentence, some of the answers begin to reveal themselves.
I read a few articles in preparation for this piece to see if I could understand it more in an effort to avoid rambling. An interesting take from Dr. Art Markman resonated with me. Think about the sentence in the first paragraph about the past, present and future. Let’s start in reverse. What makes the future scary? Well, first of all, the future is unknown which inherently leads to feelings of uneasiness. The unknown creates feelings of fear, anxiety and apprehension. Even on small levels, let’s say like when you are opening a gift, you may be generally happy in the moment (present) but not knowing what’s in the box makes you impatient and creates a tiny moment of tension (future). When you reflect on the gift, you already know what it was so there is no anxiety or tension (past). Think about a larger scale, your life. Are you going to have a job a year from now? Are your kids going to be doing well? Is your marriage going to be solid? Is your bank account going to be alive? Those are pretty intense unknowns. We can all project where we think we’ll be but the truth is we don’t know why tomorrow will bring. And that is indoubtedly scary.
(This was a scary day but a wonderful memory)
Now think about the present. The here and now is unfolding minute by minute and the pressures of the next few minutes are compounded by whatever emotions we experienced over the last few minutes. We could be fighting work problems, helping kids with homework, doing yardwork, cooking or writing a blog. It’s all a balance of what we are finishing and what we are starting. The present is a blur most of the time. We also spend a lot of the present thinking about the past or future. Those can be mixed feelings. We can fear decisions we made in the past or we can revel in personal moments of glory. By the same token, we may be fearing what tomorrow will bring or be excited about potential opportunities. Much of those feelings are dependent on our varying circumstances. But in general terms, the present is just about survival. As an employed, married, parent, decisions have to be made, people are to be kept happy and watched after and responsibilities are managed. Its kill or be killed in the present, if you’ll allow the hyperbole.
Which brings us to the past. While the future is unknown, the past is obviously known. There is no anxiety about how things are going to work out. That’s why we can even laugh at bad moments, because we know the end result. Think about the time you fell down the steps at the post office (Andrew). Looking back at it, it’s hilarious. You didn’t get hurt and your life wasn’t necessarily altered due to that event. Now, think of it in the present. If it was happening right now, there would be some pain, some humiliation and some regret. Not that hilarious. Even worse, think of it as a future event. What if I told you that sometime in the next year, you would fall down a reasonably high set of steps. I’m not telling you when or where, just that it could and probably will happen. Well, that’s not fun at all. Further, if you go back to the specific day it happened (which would put you in the present), that could’ve been the day you locked your keys in your car or closed word without saving or got the wrong order at lunch. When thinking of it in a past tense, those aren’t the things you remember about that day. It’s the steps. So the other little parts of the annoying present aren’t a part of the trip down memory lane.
So, it would be safe to say that we are selective with our memory. The present is bogging us down and we try not to think too far out into the future so when we go to the past, we hit the high spots. We remember what we want to remember, if you will. That cool story about the video store? I think I was failing health at that time (that’s right Elizabeth). Me and Alicia broke up once during those days. I had to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. I smashed my face in a golf cart during that time. But that’s not the focus of that memory. It’s the good times at the VS. How about my baseball card collection story? One of the Cotonio brothers ripped a Ken Griffey Jr. of mine in the lunchroom. I traded Todd Hall a nice card for what turned out to be a bunk autograph card. I never pulled an Elite like Shook. Not the high points of the story though. Even when talking about the good ole days at MB, you couldn’t possibly think that it was all good right? I mentioned failing health. I didn’t know if I graduated until the night of the event. I have a couple of very rough patches in high school that don’t make for good reading. That’s not to say that what is there is not true or an embellishment. But therein lies the key to the past. If you talk about the past, it’s all things that you knew the end of the story to and you can skip over the parts that may have seemed important and rough at the time but turned out to be very minor in the grand tapestry of your life.
I’m sure there are some real scientific studies and reasons behind all of this too but to me, this simple explanation makes a lot of sense. It’s all about the magnitude of the event, which is compounded in the present, and the unknown of the future that makes both of them less comfortable. We also learn from the past and beat ourselves up more in the present for repeated mistakes. If you burned your hand on an iron when you were 12, you may look back and chuckle at the story. If you burn you hand at 39, you think, “what an idiot! Those things are hot, what were you thinking?” Two totally different approaches and responses. None of this makes the past less important or less memorable or even less nostalgic. It’s just that the past is not always 100% real. We gloss over the high spots and focus on the good times. This may be our souls way of evening out the strain of the present and the fear of the future. Our hearts and minds know what they’re doing. The past serves a tremendous purpose in our lives. We learn, we laugh, we cry, we enjoy, we regret. But overall, we lived through it and we can use it both to survive the present and to plan for the future. I love the past and currently have a vacation home located on 1990 Avenue. I’ll one day live on 2035 Street, God willing, but I’ll never forget the stops along the way. I’ll just forget the bad parts.