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Remembrance of Times Past – Personal vs. collective memories and the ownership of your life

“…when you dared not go to sleep for fear of your dreams.” Terry Prachett

Once, many years ago I was rowing in a small French lake with a young Swiss woman I had met on the bus going there. I was twenty, in medical school, and used the summer break to backpack across Western Europe. The day was spectacular, the young woman was lovely, and I was very happy. It struck me however, that this is it. Even if we returned here tomorrow, it would not be the same: I will never be 20 again, on this lake in this boat with this young woman whose name I still remember. Faintly, a poem formed in my mind: A simple, inelegant lament for time lost. The following day, or was it several days later, on the train to Amsterdam, I wrote it down.   I still have it somewhere, a page, torn hastily from a copybook, with pale blue ruled lines.

My young self, a sentimental rover, spent many lovely days with amiable, ever shifting cast of backpackers: earnest morning conversations in an Amsterdam café; predawn on a ferry deck watching the starry night my sleeping bag touching another’s. Who were they, what was I? Too late; time erased all memories like waves lapping letters in the sand. My life, once languid and clear, has quickened its pace and now the years are wheezing by me, my days a fuzzy blur.

Marcel Proust, the genius of capturing time lost, wrote: “For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which—by means of a sort of snapshot—we take cognizance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilizing it.”

Conjuring up snap shots of the inner world – fading scenes faintly etched in the memory – is Proust’s prescription to immobilizing time. But we want to immobilize the good times – the ones worthy of the effort. Yet only few fortunate ones can remember extended periods of unbroken joy. For most of us sadness is a frequent companion, lingering stubbornly however much we try to cheer. Conversely, happiness is sporadic and frail, collapsing at the first sign of adversity.

We seem to be wired for sadness. We are unable to delete bad memories, and spend sleepless nights in lonely struggle with uninvited thoughts. Adulthood, with its daily burdens, turns our memory into a foe, an albatross weighing down our life. Tethered to each other by a sameness girdle, we amble through life, dreading being alone, in the authentic solitude of the real self.

It wasn’t always this way. As a child, the world surrounding you was scary and unfamiliar whereas your inner world, your imagination, offered you the best refuge. There, you could daydream for hours, making up little stories, enjoying your self, literally. Your childhood experiences, lacking in substantive history, were mostly fantasies and blissful ignorance.

Come puberty, and whatever equilibrium you discovered between you and the world surrounding you, is irrevocably upset by adolescence’s push for conformity. Being compelled to try and be like everyone else, you grow ashamed of your originality, you consider your private fantasies weird. This reversal of perspective – growing more comfortable among the others, while becoming scared of the inner you – is viewed by most of us as the right of passage into adulthood.

No wonder we feel conflicted by originality, idiosyncrasy, and otherness. The child in you, the natural inhabitant of your private world, is fascinated by the different, the mysterious, the unknown. However, that fearless explorer, your innocent self, is mostly barred from experiencing the different. At the exit from childhood, you are banished forever from the Garden of Eden; you tasted the fruit of knowledge, your awareness efficiently draining the bliss out of your ignorance.

Adult life is often marred by uninvited memories of time lost, humiliating defeats, inglorious moments, feeling rejected and abandoned by those we once loved. We anxiously scan our memory: might we unearth some exuberance at last?

Reliable pleasant memories are necessary to immobilize time: Immobilized time is essential for observing your authentic personal experiences. Your personal experiences, those shared by no one else but you, sustain your ownership over your life. Our memories cannot be separated into neatly packaged capsules of “good” or “bad”. Even a blissful recollection crossing into your consciousness can drag with it a bad one. You might wish for a dream and end up with a nightmare. Your inner world, neglected by your frantic flight from sadness, can often appear unfamiliar to you.

So how can you connect with your individuality? How do you unveil your inner world to yourself? Creativity is a great facilitator. It works to externalize your inner self, and introduces your self to you. Now, you may argue that there is no need for introductions. You have been with yourself since birth. True, but who is the self you know? Most of us live with our manufactured self. The self we create to introduce ourselves to the others.

As toddlers we were very authentic – that sweet affecting innocence of children, is in fact an expression of authenticity. Not having learned yet the social games, little children are brutally honest and bad liars. But we learn to be inauthentic as a condition for social acceptance into adulthood. We try to impress, to distract, to lie, to exaggerate; we shed crocodile tears, fake our emotions and display phony sympathies. We say we expect the best of each other, but in truth we settle for the lies. (Just try to express for one day all that you really think and you will discover the social price of authenticity.) This deception, even if socially beneficial, hurts your relationship with yourself, and becomes a constant source for self-loathing.

Remember how you used to perform as a little child to your parents? You were assured adoration no matter how silly or untalented your little performance was. Buoyed by the glimmer in your parent’s eyes, you twirled faster and faster until dizzy and giddy you fell on the floor and pretended to sleep. You were a significant person in your parents’ life, why can you not be in yours?

Be creative! Do something that only you can do. It does not matter how silly or untalented, so long as you do it yourself. Make something out of nothing with your imagination. It is for you; you are the loving audience and the adoring fan. And it would be totally and truly yours, the only thing in your life that is exclusively yours. To quote Marcel Proust again: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown.”