(in short–it takes practice)
There’s no rush. No rage. No fighting for the right-hand lane. No cussing from passing cars. No sudden braking. No testosterone-fuelled over-taking. Just the black of night, decorated by streetlights that shine like fireflies frozen in time.
Inside my cosy car, my observatory, I enjoy the company of my favourite bands, who play songs, old and new, as I soar across a sleeping city. One of the songs surprises me as it starts, its melody an echo of a distant memory.
A holiday. Family, friends and a house in Cornwall. Laughing. Lots of laughing. I feel tears stirring, and in a second, the streets become an empty canvas for me to paint my past upon. The more the song plays, the more I remember. Table tennis and pool and hide-and-seek and Gameboys and DVDs and cold English seas and local cinemas with red velvet curtains…I miss those times. Simpler times. Happier times.
Pleasure turns to pain as the images fade away, leaving nothing but these dark streets. Happiness locked in history. No key can open it. Now can never be then. The present feels like a prison.
This is nostalgia – the bittersweet feeling of recalling fond memories.
When we were creating those memories, maybe months, years or decades ago, did we realise how special they were? Did we realise that we would miss aspects of our secondary school when we were fighting to find our identity? Did we realise that we would look back fondly on our college years when we were wrestling with depression? Did we realise that we would reminisce about university life when our laptops broke hours before a deadline?
What about that holiday where we all fell out? What about the concert where hundreds of sweaty people got far too close? The chances are, when it comes to nostalgic memories, we don’t focus on the grim details. We remember the people. We remember the feeling of togetherness. We remember that whatever we were struggling with then turned out to not matter so much in the end.
“Things were so much easier back then” is a lie we often tell ourselves. We tell it to children too. We forget how resilience and responsibility is relative. We forget that spelling tests are important and stressful for five-year olds. Our resilience grows with us, like the legend of Milo, who carried a calf on his shoulders every day. Day by day, as it grew bigger, so did he. By the time he was an adult, he carried a full-sized ox.
Every phase, stage, age, period of our life has its own unique challenges. In our memory, we often edit out the challenging aspects of our past and focus on the more positive bits. In the field of psychology, this is called positivity bias, or more specifically, the Pollyanna principle – Pollyanna was a character in a novel who played what she called the ‘Glad Game’, looking for a positive thing in every situation. The fancy way of saying ‘rose-tinted glasses’.
Nostalgia is a highlight reel of our personal history. It’s how are predisposed to process past events. The present, however, often feels a lot messier. If the past is a photo album with glossy pages, the present is a scrapbook with rips and stains and crinkled edges. Emotions are all over the place, there is no consistent colour scheme, and the pen keeps threatening to run out of ink.
But consider this – our present reality will one day become our past reality.
Right now, we’re living in (what will become) the nostalgic memory of our future selves. What unique experiences can we be grateful for in this present moment that we will remember fondly later?
At times, the present moment feels like just a transitional time, a bridge to a better future. It feels like the warm-up before the game, the job before the retirement plan, the climb before the peak. We’ll be better when this thing is sorted. This marriage. This family. This job. This car. This illness. This mental health condition. This unanswered prayer.
But one day, we’ll look back on this present moment and realise that we were living all along. There’s no preparation for living. It’s already happening. This is not a warm-up.
We fantasise about a perfect past or a perfect future, and we find ourselves caught in the imperfect present. But in this human, earthly existence, the imperfect present is all we’ll ever have. The imperfect present is where we all live, but we’re all trying to move out of the neighbourhood. We do this by distracting ourselves, dreaming bigger dreams, trying to recreate the past.
Wanting and working for things to be better is a noble task. That said, it seems that as human beings, we’re good at setting goals and not so good at sitting comfortably with ourselves.
We should strive for better-ness, but we also need to learn how to rest in present-ness.
Present-ness (or ‘mindfulness’) is an attentiveness to the world as it is, an acceptance of the people and places and senses that surround us right now.
Better-ness and present-ness are not mutually exclusive ideas. We can strive to get a new job while aiming to live presently in the job we don’t like. We can strive to be a better parent, partner, or friend, while being willing to live presently as the flawed parent, partner or friend that we are. Maybe, we’ll even be better for it.
The wonder of nostalgia is that it creates a pleasing narrative that we weren’t aware of at the time. We may have enjoyed it, but we may not have truly appreciated it. I didn’t know I’d miss them. I didn’t know I loved that place so much. I didn’t know that restaurant would be so significant. By being truly present, we can appreciate people, places and experiences as we live them, not just when we look back on them.
Every chapter of our lives that is written contains different characters, scenes, and special moments, that are unique to that chapter. Instead of thinking ‘Should I invest in this person/job/moment if I won’t be here for long?’, we could think ‘My time is limited with this person/job/moment, I’ll make the most of it here and now’.
Present-ness takes practice.
I often find myself lost in thought. I am more often wondering how to find a way out of the woods than to appreciate the beauty of the trees. I sometimes text or scroll Facebook when I’m on the phone. I get anxious about a future that never arrives. I think of people as means to an end, extras in my story. So many things pull our focus, it’s no wonder that we fall over instead of standing on The Now.
But, if nostalgia teaches anything, it’s that we’ll appreciate these times.
So, here are some questions that may help us to reflect on being more present:
The roads feel magical at night, if we’re awake enough to notice.
This week’s sidetrack is a takeover, written by Jonah at www.thoughtsindigital.com