It’s springtime, and as nature flares with abundance in my garden, the squirrels are roaming happily, anticipating the prosperity of the coming months. But every fall, as they become busy collecting acorns from the old oak tree and stashing them in their winter pantry, I wonder if they are saying to themselves: “very soon the air will freeze, there will be no food available and the ground would be covered with snow – better collect acorns now and prepare for the winter.” Who knows? But for us, humans, planning ahead is constantly on our mind. We fantasize the future ahead of us: we prepare clothes for tomorrow, we plan our vacation, and we even brush our teeth so they would not decay years from now. The past seems to us, well, in the past… The past is over, immutable, forever frozen in our personal and communal history. But is it really gone?
As you move along with the passage of time your tomorrows become your yesterdays. That is the only certain part about your future. It constantly becomes your past until there are no more tomorrows left.
The growing number of yesterdays in your life, relentlessly pile on top of each other in the memory banks of your brain. Your experiences are etched in your memory whether you want to remember them or wish you could have forgotten them. An investment in the past is a secure deposit: no one can take it away from you. Conversely, an investment in the future is invariably a gamble. You reap the benefits if your life proceeds according to “your plan”. You lose if something untoward happens to throw you off course.
But how can you plan for the past? Can you change it? You certainly can, and in more ways than one. Here is how:
The simplest way to affect the past is by considering that today is tomorrow’s past. Today is your last chance to shape what would be forever locked up in your memory. It is a simple notion but if you teach yourself to act accordingly, your present would invariably become richer and much more powerful. You will learn to pay attention to your life as it is happening, to see your experiences as layers of memory ever expanding and reshaping. Perhaps a better metaphor is to view your life as a tree growing inch by inch ever strengthening and intensifying. No matter what happens to you, you have the solid roots and the sturdy frame as your foundation. Learning to appreciate and enjoy what you already have instead of what you have not achieved yet is a basic tenet of contentment. In that context, planning for your past may not sound so strange. You invest today not only for tomorrow but also for yesterday. Your life is not only your wishes but also your experience and memories. Today is not too late, but rather the exact time to make a positive impact on what you will remember tomorrow. Some of my patients find this notion scary:” does it not make you too self-conscious about what you are doing?” But this is exactly the point: You must be self-conscious to live your life right. Being oblivious to what you are doing, and more importantly, to the impact that it would have on your memories is not going to make your life easier. And while it might be easy to be oblivious to your present experience, it is in fact very difficult to forget it once it is etched in your brain. Being conscious of your choices make the memory of them more palpable than their consequence; you would not have to kick yourself “what was I thinking” style, since you would remember what you were thinking by paying attention to your decisions. In other words: Plan for the past by taking care of the present.
But what if you, like many, have lived your life as if your past is unimportant? You have a problem. Eventually you are forced to look back and realize that you wasted so many wonderful moments of the present by focusing on the future.
Remember, your present is the only tangible part of your life. Do not allow anyone to infuse it with negative energy or waste your time. Social by nature, we are conditioned to favor our surrounding over our inner world. We spend time (voluntarily!!), in situations and with people that are negative for us. Indeed, we often use those around us to distract ourselves from ourselves. With time, people and circumstances come and go, but our inner world, the slowly growing sediments of memories, is always there with us. When faced with the option, no one wants to part from her/his own memories – think of the horror of Alzheimer’s disease. We know that our memories shape who we are, what we become, and how we review our life. In middle age, when the past gets longer than the future, the growing majority of your life is your memories of them.
It makes sense to invest more in what inexorably becomes a growing part of your life, then in something that may never happen to you no matter how much you plan for it. Obviously, investing in your past is also an investment in your future – whereas planning solely for the future risks infusing your past with an endless stream of disappointments.
You might be a risk-taker and more prone to gamble. Or perhaps you are buoyed by your imagination and fantasy. Conversely, you might be paralyzed with worry. But the past stays with you, immutable unalterable, whether you view your future as an endless source of possibilities or anticipate some impending doom. If you use the minute you are currently inhabiting to ponder your life’s timeline, it is easy to see that the minute that just passed is more stable and certain than the one which would come next.
In his “In Search for lost time” Marcel Proust likens memory to an edifice comprised of memories stacked on each other, the oldest ones at the bottom and the newest being added continuously on top. Our memory of a minute ago is freshest and sharpest: the passage of time pushes the older memories under the newer ones and makes them more blurry and harder to retrieve. At times, a scent or a flavor remind us that nothing is gone or lost. Everything that ever happened to you is etched in the recesses of your memory.
There are so many memories that you would rather forget, some contain scars of recent and distant traumas; Good, desirable memories are usually hazy – while taunting, cringe-worthy ones suddenly appear uninvited. Much like food and water for your body, you need to add constant supply of good memories to your personal edifice: Planning for the past entails a conscious construction of positive experiences for retention in your memory.
Consider: assuming you can choose between positive and negative experiences, how many negative ones would you choose? Indeed, even the most mundane day, offers the choice between pleasant experiences and aggravating ones. Whenever you linger on the bad, or forgo of the good, you create an eternal bad memory; Today’s good experience is tomorrow’s good memory.
Invest in your past. Orchestrate pleasant moments; a good cup of coffee on a break, nice music for the commute: little tiny pleasures. Their memory will populate your inner world with points of warmth and light. You will like yourself better as you are consistently and deliberately good to yourself. By being engaged and fascinated with your life, your days cease to pass unnoticed, hurried, but rather be savored for their complexity and simplicity alike.