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On the past & why it takes effort to get the most out of now
Years ago, a colleague told me about a friend he used to have.
I don’t remember what he told me about the friend -- that wasn’t the memorable part. It was his phrasing that got me: a friend he “used to have.” I quizzed him on it.
Oh, so you guys had some sort of falling-out?
Not at all.
Oh, so you just haven’t spoken in a while?
This colleague shared with me a view I’d never considered before: friendships can run their course, and -- you know what -- that’s okay. He explained to me that he thought about that old friend fondly, but that -- as anyone with more than a couple of decades on this earth starts to understand -- it’s a normal and even beautiful thing that friendships may come to a natural end.
I remember being a bit puzzled at first. I mean, if two people are great friends and they lose touch, isn’t that kind of tragic? Or at least unfortunate? But the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve come to see it the way my colleague described it.
Put it this way: life has seasons. Maybe less like the kind that calendar years have, and more like the kind that TV shows have. Seasons with forward momentum and an ongoing story arc. Friendships have their place in those seasons, like supporting characters that weave in and out of your story -- as you simultaneously weave in and out of theirs.
It doesn’t have to be tragic or awkward when friendships expire. So much of it is based on circumstance: you and your high-school friends shared a daily routine for years. Same goes for most friendships you have in life: your social circle is usually dictated by some combination of where you are and what you do with your time. In special cases, you form a bond that causes you to make time over the long term for the specific purpose of maintaining your friendship (this is the stuff of monthly get-togethers, annual trips, etc).
More often than not, though… you don’t make that time. People move away, or they move on -- changing the focus of their time and energy. We’re all in motion, all the time. And that means, sometimes, friends drift apart. There’s a beauty in that. “Losing touch” -- that is, the idea that you’ve lost something -- maybe isn’t the best way to think about it. Maybe the accumulation of these beginnings and endings are just a part of what life is all about. You can’t have the series without the seasons.
There’s a practical element to this as much as there is a poetic one. We’ve talked here at Unachievement about the pitfalls of wishing away the present in being fixated on the future. It works the same way when you get too fixated on the past.
I remember reading once about a thing that all radical movements have in common: they play on people’s bias for undervaluing the present. If you want to control or manipulate people en masse, you tell them that you share their sense of loss about the good-ol’ days. Things aren’t the same as they used to be. You paint them a picture of the future, and how it will be better and brighter -- maybe a triumphant return to the way things once were. And you assure them that you’re the one to take them there.
Here’s why that works (problematically well): we all naturally have that sense of loss.
The good-ol’ days are not something that only the aggrieved few reminisce about. Everyone has a “good-ol’ days”. As far as I can tell, it works like this:
There’s only a couple of types of memories that your brain really holds onto. Happy memories are one (because why wouldn’t your brain love hoarding those?). Real trauma or tragedy are the other -- the kind that forever sting every time they’re brought up. Everything else? That’s the stuff of boredom or day-to-day struggle, frustration, exertion, nuisance -- basically, all the things that are tough when you’re going through them, but wash away with time. You just don’t hang on to most of those unpleasant things as lasting memories, because -- again -- why would you?
Add it all up and what do you get? Trauma aside (which is hopefully rare), you walk around carrying a bunch of vivid warm-fuzzies from good times past, mixed with the vague recollection that you had to deal with some shitty stuff along the way. In other words, you remember the good stuff more than you do the low-grade bad stuff, so when someone comes along to tell you that the good-ol’ days were the best days of your life, you’re ready to agree.
This is the part where I make the uncomfortable comparison between the leader of a radical movement and the asshole autopilot that lives in your head full-time: your brain is always telling you that today is not great. Why? Because you don’t gloss over the drudgery as it’s happening, the way you do when you look back on it.
Today, your struggles are all too real. They’re every bit as vivid and relevant to you as the good things you have going on -- probably even moreso. Maybe you have 5, 6 or 7 days a week that you’d sum up as “hard work” or even “hardship”. And yet, if we fast forward 5 years, the only things you’ll really remember from today -- which is to say, the only things you’ll still feel much about -- will be those bursts of acute joy that break up everything that’s ordinary. Special family moments or milestones; the rush of victory or success; the highs of vacations, or hamming it up with friends.
To feel a sense of loss about the past, about a friendship whose season came and went or about “the way things used to be” is to fall full-force into that trap. Seems to me, in an evolutionary sense, your mind wantsyou to feel things about the past and the future. The prospect of future pleasure -- informed by the glow of the past -- is what motivates you to keep moving. And from a survival standpoint, to stay moving is really all that matters. So much so that pleasures in the present (especially simple, ordinary ones) don’t have the same impact. Even those occasions that are most exceptional when looking ahead or back on them -- say, that afternoon you spent sightseeing in Paris -- seem somehow normal in the moment, by default. If you want to stop and smell the roses, you’re going to have to consciously take control.
So, that old friend of yours. You’ll bump into her again one day. When you do, I hope that you don’t spend the time fumbling over excuses for why you lost touch. I hope that instead, you take the opportunity to tell her how grateful you are for your time as friends, and how happy you are that you have this chance -- now -- to hear about what she’s up to.
And then I hope you have the same conversation with yourself, after she leaves. You don’t need to struggle to hold onto good times past. Remember them fondly and accept them for their place in the story of your life. Resist the temptation to feel wistful. Whatever your current struggles, there will be more good times -- maybe even today. Your job, here and now, is to make sure you’re not too distracted to enjoy them
The you of yesterday looked forward to this exact moment.