Sometimes I have a tendency to wallow in nostalgia, especially during the holidays. I decorate my Christmas tree with antique ornaments, and my house with Santa Clauses, nativity scenes and other knick-knacks mostly from the 1950s. I have lots of old family photographs and have used them to create memory albums, carefully noting the name of each person in the pictures. So I definitely get the attraction of living, at least now and then, in the past.
I also know that the past has shaped me, for better or for worse, and that who I am today is mostly the result of everything that I have experienced so far in my life. When something provokes a particularly strong memory, it can seem as if the past has reached out and touched me, like when I hear Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” and am instantly transported back to a fun night out with my college friends. The same thing happens when a perceived slight can make me feel like a solitary child on the playground, watching her best friend linking arms and walking away with someone else. Whether good or bad, it can feel very real, even though it’s just an illusion.
By the time we’ve reached our middle age, I think most of us have learned that life really is a journey that moves relentlessly forward. Returning to the past isn’t a choice, whether we want to or not. We can’t return to the days when our bodies were young and the world seemed full of endless opportunities. We can’t change what we’ve done or not done; we can’t take back our mistakes; and we can’t erase any damage that was done to us. The past is over and done with, and the only we we can ever revisit it is through our memories.
All we have, and all we ever will have, is the reality of our present and the hope of our future. The past may have shaped who we are now, but the present is what we can control. And I think that’s a good thing, because the present…our actions, our words, our choices…is what will determine our future. Which means that, even at this point of our lives, we still have quite a bit of control over what our life will become.
We may be middle aged, but if we are lucky, we still have many miles to go on our life’s journey. I have come to believe that the best plan is to look ahead and search for that spot on the horizon where we want to be, and point ourselves firmly toward it. Because we are always moving forward on this one-way journey, and the direction we take is ultimately up to us.