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Reminiscing the Past

How clinging to old memories can sometimes do more harm than good

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Photo by Mihály Köles on Unsplash
Photo by Mihály Köles on Unsplash

Many of us may have spent a great deal of time through the pandemic reminiscing our “old life” – the days when we could travel freely, eat publicly, and meet openly. Reminiscing has served as a coping mechanism during the difficult days and lonely moments. It allows us to bring back to mind the many happy memories we have created in our pasts and elicit the same positive emotions that were generated when we were experiencing those memories in real time. 

Research has shown the benefits of reminiscing, particularly in older adults, who reminisce as a way to share their wisdom, pass down their legacy, and compile a narration of their life events — a story that places them as characters within their circumstances who have made a series of choices that have led them to where they are today. In this way, reminiscing can promote a sense of self-identity and bring meaning and deeper insight into our lives. 

Reminiscing does not always serve a noble purpose, though. When left unfettered, reminiscing, like many other thought patterns, can become maladaptive. I personally found this to be true of myself. For me, reminiscing became a way to pass the time, especially on those long, slow days spent in lockdown. “Last year on this day, I was by the ocean in the west coast … Two years ago, we were celebrating a surprise birthday with all of our family and friends.” At a certain point, reminiscing leads to comparisons between how things once “were” and how they “are” today, and arguably, with the way the world looks now, today does not measure up to yesterday

I have always been a person that is emotionally attached to the past. Reminiscing has become an activity of self-reflection for me. I would reminisce past accomplishments and successes, past personas that I adopted that served me well (albeit fleetingly), past hobbies that I once participated in, and so on. I would then ask myself why I was not experiencing the same successes, or thriving in the same way as I once did. Was I doing something wrong?

The thing is, hindsight is not always 20/20. Memories are often biased, and we have an innate tendency to view past events as more pleasant and past circumstances are more ideal than they actually were. This is called the positivity bias.

During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to read “The Untethered Soul” by Michael Singer. In it, he speaks about the concept of clinging. We desperately hold on, or cling, to old feelings created from old memories that provided us with a level of happiness in the past that we hope to recreate in the present simply because it felt like the pinnacle — the ideal experience of joy. However, when we do this, we block ourselves from absorbing new experiences and deny ourselves from the present, which can potentially provide us with that much, or even more, joy through new experiences. When our minds remain in a fog of the past, we neglect the truth that the present is the only reality. Neither the past nor the future can provide us with what we seek today, at this moment. Reading about this made me realize that I was clinging to my old self well before the pandemic.

While in lockdown, we have become isolated; many of us may have felt like we have been held hostage, shackled to our own existence. Perhaps we were held hostage by our own selves a long time ago, denying ourselves the freedom to fully experience the present. By becoming more aware of my thoughts, I am working towards changing my experience of reality. After all, the external world will always be unpredictable and uncontrollable. But the possibilities of the inner world are limitless. 

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