Curating Your Own Past

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
George Orwell, 1984

Any quotation from 1984 usually implies that the author is about to write something sinister or dystopian. Today, I’m going to turn that notion on its side a bit, consider the wisdom of Orwell’s “Big Brother,” and discuss how it relates to how people think about their past, present, and future.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

In the midst of all the self-improvement reading I’ve been doing over the past year, one idea keeps cropping up from philosophers and psychologists alike: how we individuals relate to our pasts affects our perceptions of what’s possible in our future. Since I’ve got a Ph.D. in Bart, I’ll use me as an example.

On the whole, however humorous I might be in person, inside my own head I’ve been a sensitive, often pessimistic personality. This has colored my perception of my personal history, especially my adolescence (ages 12-17).

I grew up in the reasonably solid middle-class Chicago suburb of Lombard, Illinois. While being raised in a divorced household, we were neither destitute nor living in squalor. My sister and I did not skip a meal unless by oversight. We were clothed as well as a single mother’s salary allowed, with some additions from our father’s child support payments, hand-me-downs (for my sister, anyhow), and additional help from our grandparents. We were able to participate in extracurricular activities and eventually to acquire a shared automobile for getting to/from work and school. We had friends near and far we could call upon for companionship or simple play. We were not in a crime-ridden area, nor was the home subject to vandalism or decay. Our parents and families took interest in and were involved in our lives. Eventually, both of us obtained college baccalaureate degrees. The externals, in short, were good.

However, if you were an undersized, uncoordinated, emotionally sensitive boy who wore a Green Bay Packers jacket in Bears territory, it could be a hard way to grow up. I was a bright child, and I had moments where I inadvertently (or purposely) talked down to peers not so gifted. This created its own set of challenges because I was not strong, a good fighter, or particularly interested in fighting. I got bullied a lot; followed home way too often; and physically beaten up more than once. I was socially awkward and not particularly smooth when it came to interacting with girls. In the words of a friend, I was “an easy target.” As a result of all this, I acquired a lot of negative feelings about my peers, and some of those resentments carried forward to my adulthood. I was afraid most of the time and more than a little paranoid about doing or saying the wrong thing for fear of earning another beating or public humiliation.

Which collection of memories is “correct?”

Curating My Past

Again, being the pessimistic and emotional sort, the negative memories made more of an impact, and they shaped me long after I graduated high school, graduated college, moved out of Illinois, and created a new life for myself, first through Walt Disney World, grad school, and then as a successful technical writer in the instructional design, defense, and space industries. I achieved most of the dreams I had for escape when I was suffering the depredations of some of my peers.

The problem with remembering primarily the negative aspects of one’s youth is that you end up carrying the emotional baggage along with you. Bullying carries with it feelings of helplessness. Social unkindness conjures up feelings of social incompetence. Immaturity-fueled errors in adolescent courting inspire less-than-positive feelings about one’s ability to find a partner in the future. And so forth. It makes for a messy adulthood if you carry these negative feelings around for too long.

So what can I do? I can put some effort into forgetting or not focusing on the negative aspects of my life 30-odd (or just 30 odd) years later. However, how does one recapture what was good in those times? One way is to go back through the old yearbooks and look for good things that happened. Just because a lot of the most emotionally intense memories were the ones that stuck doesn’t mean that’s all there are. And I have living witnesses–family and friends–who were there and have different recollections of those times. It’s always interesting talking with my sister, for example, about our shared past because while we lived in the same household and had many of the same experiences over the course of 16 years, we have different movies in our heads. Lastly, I can reconsider some of those bad moments and consider what I learned from them. I can also realize, with the benefit of this ripe old age (creeping up on 50) that the screwups were not permanent and I was able to move on.

There are ways, in other words, to recapture what was good in the past and forgive or let go of the bad stuff.

Why This Matters

As the Orwell quotation notes, what we believe about ourselves in the past colors what we believe we can do in the present and future. Believe you’re likely to be punished or humiliated for speaking up, and you might be less likely to speak up on (or write about) issues that matter to you. Believe that you were a failure in past relationships can color your belief in successful connections later.

In short, it’s worth the effort to tell yourself a better story about your past to make a better future possible. This is especially important if your later circumstances are better than your past. It can be damned difficult to see the good now if you’re possessed by the bad then, but it needn’t be that way. It’s worth learning and telling yourself new stories, about your past. Your present and future happiness might depend on it!

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