I’m pretty good at letting go and moving on from past events; I’ve had a fair bit of practice over the years. But today I was reminded of just how hard it can be to let go of the past. I was reminded how people get stuck in that mental prison of what ifs and why dids, and why it can be so very hard to move on from particular life events.
It all started with a clear out at my mum’s house. I had a ton of stuff in her attic that needed sorting through and either throwing away or moving to my place.
You know the deal: You go round there thinking it’s a two-hour job at most, and five hours later you’re sat on a box in a crowded attic sifting through memory boxes, old school reports, birthday cards, remnants of past hobbies and all sorts of knick knacks.
I can’t throw that out! Hmm, but I haven’t used it in 15 years.
I’ll go through all this stuff when I’m “older” and enjoy it then.
Or maybe I won’t because it’ll remind me of just how young I once was!
But having a clear out is much more than just deciding what to throw away and what to keep: It’s a non-stop roller coaster of emotions as you traverse the valleys of years gone past.
For example: I found letters from previous girlfriends, pictures of holidays with friends who’ve moved on to new pastures, presents from my father dating back 25 years, childhood toys and a hundred and one trips down memory lane.
Suddenly you find yourself immersed in a material narration of your life’s history; your senses guided through the journey by visual nostalgia.
But what’s strange is that these things you’ve collected – things that have been absent from your life, lying in a cold attic for years, unmissed and seldom ever thought about – suddenly take on new emotional meaning in the present. What’s even stranger is that the events associated with the material reminders don’t exist anymore. These moments can’t be revived. The feelings you had at the time cannot be felt again.
As you become purposefully trapped in a matrix of memories, the grasping nature of the mind is presented with a perfect opportunity to attach itself to the past, a place it will happily reside, drifting in and out of positive and negative associations until you are knee-deep in those what ifs and why dids.
The magnetic pull of the past on the mind is so powerful that you almost forget where you are, and forget all the wonderful blessings currently in your presence. Nostalgia then becomes the mind’s crafty servant, evoking an often romanticised and exaggerated narrative of past experiences that sneakily seeks to stain the present with an air of averageness and lesser sense of self-actualisation. We know this to be true because we grow up with constant reminders from our elders that “things were better back in the day”. We then become those elders.
Whether sitting down pondering thoughts of times gone by, or going through old things and stirring up memories, it’s inevitable that memory lane will stir up mixed feelings about the present. And that’s what I found happening to me, right there in that attic.
As I looked at a photo of my university football team, taken after we won the cup final, I was reminded that I’ll never be that good at football again, that my legs aren’t as quick and will get slower as the years pass.
As I cleared through the boxes, I came across ornaments and games that used to reside in our family home when my parents were married, something that has long since changed and triggered a whole bunch of crazy events over the years.
As I stumbled across a photo of an ex-girlfriend, I was reminded of a person’s problems I couldn’t seem to help or solve, no matter how hard I tried, and the fact that her life hasn’t gotten much better since we parted.
As I stumbled across certificates and trophies I was given for various things I achieved as a young boy, I was reminded of missed opportunities due to the fickleness of my youth.
I went from the initial “Wow, look at this” mode to feeling a tad sombre about a number of things that have happened over the years.
And so I decided to take a tea break.
As I sat drinking my tea, an invaluable thought crossed my mind: None of the blessings I currently have in my life would exist had it not been for those memories. Everything that has happened, good, bad, happy or sad, has been instrumental in creating the life I have now.
Seen in one way, these memories are separate events hashed together in an indiscriminate way, yet seen in another, they all comprise one perpetual, perfect moment, playing out exactly as they should and scoring the musical that is my life. In a nutshell, everything that happens is an interdependent, interconnected result of everything that happens before it.
A trip down memory lane can be a beautiful ride, filled with blissful memories and heart-warming thoughts. It can also be a painful, sad experience that leads us to darker places we’d rather not visit. That said, the latter can be positive too, forming a necessary part of the healing process that assists us in breaking free of our demons and enabling us to embrace life in the present.
Either way, once the attic door is shut, we must sever our ties and step back into the only moment that exists, the only moment that matters, the only moment that can help us thrive and be happier and more content with what is – this moment.
A trip down memory lane exposes the grasping nature of the mind and its propensity to cling desperately to happy memories, and often negative ones too. Mentally exposed in this way, we gain access to clarity of mind that helps us better understand and appreciate the transitional, temporary nature of existence, and that we have no choice but to allow ourselves to flow with its harmony.
Even if the past seems in hindsight like it was better than the present, the reality is that the past doesn’t exist, and living in its memory won’t change anything in the now. The past is therefore able to teach us to let go. Anyone who has suffered bereavement knows this to be true: to carry on with life and rediscover joy, you have to let go. You won’t forget, and neither should you try, but sanctuary can be found if you allow that person to rest and live through their memory, not become trapped inside it.
Always remember that for all the what ifs and why dids your mind loves to toy with now and again, and everything you miss about times gone by, the fact that you’re alive in the now means you have a wonderful opportunity to create a better you that consists of more amazing moments. That means greater achievements, greater relationships, greater acts of love and kindness, greater happiness and a greater appreciation of life itself.