Last quarter in my creative writing class, we performed an emotional awareness exercise (it’s not the heart-warming Breakfast-Club-moment it sounds like, though if it was, I would have most definitely been Emilio Estevez). We took a specific state of being and described the resulting physical sensations it had upon our body. For example, humiliation = throat and stomach squeezed together; anger = lungs slowly filling with sand; Tapatio = mosh pit on the tongue.
The most intriguing state was nostalgia. For some, it invoked the same golden glow and weightlessness of gratitude. For others, it was that sinking emptiness expanding from the stomach that comes when one experiences despair or loneliness (or country music). Though the memories were heartfelt, they carried with them discouragement and hopelessness. They were the illusive phantoms of a life once lived. (I may have meant ‘elusive’ there, but I think either one works.) That leads me to today’s advice:
Do: Appreciate the past.
Doo-Doo: Live in the past.
The past is peculiar. (I feel British whenever I use the word ‘peculiar.’) The past has an incredible influence on our present and future even though it is just that — time passed. It’s obvious the way a person’s emotional, mental and relational health can be crippled by a harmful past — abuse, addiction, betrayal, tragedy — sadly, the list goes on. But there can be a negative reactionary component to good memories as well, one that speaks much more to our present than our past.
I spent last spring quarter abroad in Oxford. The majority of my time was spent writing or researching my weekly 10-page tutorial papers. (I don’t say this to brag, but rather to help paint an accurate picture…but also to brag.) Yet when I think back on the trip, my memory tends to leave out the less than desirable parts. I don’t remember pulling multiple all-nighters, paying double for everything because the American dollar is having performance issues or being told to stop shouting in public because my best attempt at a British accent sounds like the Geico Gecko. But I do remember running around the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland at midnight and trying to explain my love for Angels baseball to a baseball-illiterate (and therefore lesser) nation and getting to attend Will & Kate’s royal wedding due to a crazy, fluke mistake with invitation deliveries. (I don’t remember if that last part actually happened, further proving my argument for the faulty nature of memory.)
The Illusion of a Golden Age: a flawed longing for a fictionalized past can keep us discontent and shackled from proceeding in the present. (Don’t believe me? Ask Owen Wilson’s character from Midnight in Paris.) Take, for instance, a break-up, a divorce or a death; these are very concrete signs that life pushes forward indifferently, and there are some things you can’t get back. And it’s ok to grieve what has been lost. That is probably the healthiest and most honest way to handle tragedy. But to romanticize the past as the best life will ever be paints the present like a prison and the future as absent of hope.
Scott Hansen, a San Francisco artist who creates music under the moniker Tycho, released a breath-taking instrumental record last year called Dive. (Big thanks to Thrice’s Riley Breckenridge for the recommendation.) This is what Hansen had to say about the record: “Nostalgia is a common thread in my work, but this album wasn’t driven by that idea. I see these songs as artifacts from a future which might have more in common with our past than our present.”
I’m slowly learning (the hard way, more often than not) that life moves on and things change. People change. They walk in and out of your life, sometimes forever. And even if they remain, there may be no returning to what was once had. But just because you’ve lost one relationship doesn’t mean you can’t have a comparable one down the road with someone you meet tomorrow. While it is often easier to cling to the momentary comfort of the past, it is better to hope in the golden prospect of the future.
It’s no surprise that trying to go back is the biggest deterrent to moving forward. Living in the past is not living at all. It should be called “loitering in the past” (and if the past is anything like the parking lot of Baskin Robbins in San Juan Capistrano, loitering there may be punishable by a $250 fine. San Juan PD, you are unreasonable tyrants). The loss of an incredible past doesn’t necessarily produce a lesser future — unless you let it. If hindsight is 20-20, then nostalgia is 50-50, and the odds are in your hands.
Still living in a past relationship, ladies? Chase would be happy to help you escape that nostalgia. Email him at ninjaish “at” stanford “dot” edu for details.