Letting Our Memories Take Us for a Ride

I’m offering you a way back.” If someone said this to you, would you take it? What event springs to mind when you read that sentence? How would you do things over, if you could?

Revisiting our past is a useful but potentially dangerous exercise. Although we learn from our mistakes and can be nourished by recalling sublime moments, losing ourselves in them is risky. Dwelling on what was or what could have been does little to enhance our now. It’s the manner in which we hold our memories that I focus on in today’s post. Memories can be a powerful basis of wisdom, healing, and happiness, but they can also weigh us down, diminishing our ability to find new joy.

How often do your thoughts drift back? Why do you think that is?

While it’s true that, over time, our bodies grow more fragile and our energy wanes, this doesn’t mean that our minds must calcify. As everyone knows, most elderly people tend to fixate on their past, often because they believe their present has less to offer. I’ve watched them become more and more occupied with sorting through old boxes of photographs, correspondence, and receipts that are so old nobody recognizes who or what they are about. I suppose part of this behavior could be attributed to an attempt to make sense of what happened, to identify overarching patterns, or to document the migration of a certain family dynamic, but what occurs to me as I watch it is what about now? That was then; it needn’t predominate so much of today and letting it do so minimizes the possibility for new growth.

Letting the past control the present and future is a pothole a lot of adults drive into. Their reasons are wide ranging: such as 1) a belief that clinging to the past is respectful, 2) forgetting an old hurt negates the wrong entirely which doesn’t seem right, or 3) distrust that life can ever improve upon what once was. Memories used in this manner become shackles.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. As a history major and someone who considers context to be the key to understanding, I strongly agree. However, the constructive use of memory has its limits. People change, contexts shift, who we are today isn’t who we were then. The things that made us happy long ago might not have the same impact now. Empowering a single, fixed moment to hold sway over a fluid present fails to take into account all the changes that have occurred.

Does what I’m saying make any sense at all?

This line of reasoning applies to any memory—good or bad. What we remember provides a snapshot of time-date stamped information; like a Chevy Nova, it’s a reflection of its era. Memories are useful because they provide data and may help us recognize patterns (which is how we learn), but beyond that, they’re limited in terms of their utility. And yet, some of us simply cannot move on. I get it. I do it, too. I replay certain interactions and experiences over and over because, well, because they remind me of particularly wonderful times that I’m not sure I’ll get ever again. I hope I’m wrong. How sad it is to find comfort in such an obsessive manner…

Words can’t be unsaid, bells can’t be unrung, and people move on. Life isn’t static. I’m a pretty sentimental person but I’ve seen the burden that comes with revisiting the past. I’ve watched people bind themselves to old ideas, old grievances, old joys, and old mistakes. I’ve seen how this can crush the potential for new possibilities to take root, new happiness to blossom.

Ok, so having laid out my thinking about the role of memories and how we use them, let’s focus on you: when you go back in time, where do you go? What is it about that person or situation that you replay? What does doing so give you and why do you need it so much? Given who you are now, would this person or experience be as important today?

In a roundabout way, what I’m trying to do is remove some of the emotional tentacles that we wrap around our recollections. The more dispassionate we can be towards the past, the easier it becomes to forgive, to understand the larger picture, to redefine its significance, and to plot a future course that is based on who we are now, not who we (or they) were. It can feel weird at first—being objective and rational has none of the grounding, dramatic power of an emotional response—but with practice, it gets easier.

Use this analogy when assessing the role memory plays in your life: do you really want to drive a Chevy Nova because that’s what was cool in the 70s? I used to ride in one with plaid seats and no seat belts. Trust me, it wasn’t so great—even if Mr. Haley did go 80 mph up Watson street to get me home.

Chevy Nova


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