Sunday, January 4, 2009

Coming to Grips With the Past

Late on New Years eve I was laying awake after our party listening to loud music thumping away in the distance. I realized that I spend very little time thinking or talking about my past. Maybe that's not unusual. We all know people who talk too much about the past; they can be terribly dull.

For me, however, it goes beyond this. The very concept of a "fond memory" seems alien. It's not that there is anything remotely bad lurking in my past. Far to the contrary. Yet whenever I think about the past I always find all of my memories tinged with sadness. I think about all the people who were once my friends who I've now lost track of. I think about the places I've been and the things I've seen, and I find myself filled with regret that those things are separated from me by so many years, fading away in my memory like the yellowing pages of an old newspaper.

The funny thing is that some of the older people I know don't seem to feel this way at all. My uncle Bill van Ieperen in particular told me that as he gets older he loves to spend time thinking about all the places that he's been and the things he has experienced. On New Years Eve it struck me that perhaps one of the natural steps of aging is to come to grips with the past.

When you are young everything is fresh and new. You assume that your friends will be around forever, and that some experiences will never be forgotten. Now I am nearly 40. There is as much memory behind me as lies ahead, and things that I had thought I could never forget have faded completely from my mind. I can't remember the faces of some of my best friends from twenty years ago. They are gone.

As I sat thinking about it on New Years Eve I realized that there was no reason to feel sad about these things. We cannot keep all our old friends if we want to make new ones. We cannot remember all of our old experiences if we want the things we do today to burn brightly. We cannot learn if we do not make bad decisions and learn from them.

In that one moment of introspection I was able to completely change my relationship with the past. There are things I would have done differently to be sure. But I don't feel sad about it any more. I was able to lay back right there and then, just like my uncle described, and remember as many details as I could of some of the events in my life. It was quite enjoyable. I quickly realized that as I spent time remembering something the memories started to sharpen and all sorts of details I had completely forgotten would come back.

I have come to grips with the idea of the past. What happened yesterday, or a year ago, or a decade ago, is gone. It can never come back. It cannot be relived in the same way, if at all. But that is OK, because if we go through life gathering good experiences and memories, we will build a treasure trove of places and experiences that we will always be able to wander through.