Putting Yesterday To Use
Is the past, as Crosby, Stills & Nash sang, just a goodbye? What exactly is it worth?
This dovetails for me with the issue of what older people are worth, because this is a culture that reveres the new and the young. I usually feel alone with this issue (called ageism) that few seem to notice or talk about. But recently a client of mine, voicing his frustration about the city, declared, “New York is a youth engine! It’s not for the old like me!” The fact that he feels old in New York at age 37 says plenty; the fact that he said it to a therapist almost twice his age without the slightest hint of irony may say even more.
So it behooves us who are over the hill by 35 to begin making serious use of our past, lest we fade into useless oblivion by 40.
And as I age, I find it increasingly feasible and satisfying to make use of where I’ve been, to mine my memories for meaning. This has turned out to be the biggest perk of becoming a therapist: All I’ve been through becomes of potential use. Like when a client comes in feeling unfulfilled in their job or career. “I thought by now I’d have it made, or at least be well on my way!” I hear this from many 30 and 35 and 40 year olds, desperate because they feel they’ve failed, or have wasted their lives, or are hopelessly stuck in unfulfilling work. When I tell them that the therapist they’re looking at didn’t find his chosen field until he turned 40, the scales fall from their eyes and their whole face lights up.
So as time goes on, along with the realization that the sand at the bottom of the hourglass is growing alarmingly greater than what remains at the top, I like to imagine the past is still here, just like the present. Oh, I know this contradicts the be-here-now philosophy. But I find it useful.
And imagine you and I could visit the past, like in a time machine, but not for how we could change it or what we could teach it, but vice versa.
Oh yes we’ve gained much knowledge in the past, say, 50 years, but what about the knowledge we’ve lost?
Like how to relax? Or how to get along as men and women in a relationship? (I mean for the long run).
Like how to, as a family, come home at night and spend time together talking?
Or how to play stickball or Bridge? Or even how to occupy ourselves in a leisurely reverie with nothing but…ourselves?
So the past itself has some things to teach us. That’s why we study history…or should. And that’s why we should study our own past. The unexamined life, as they say, isn’t worth living. And I’m not just talking like a shrink here, or like some Freudian who would say, you don’t trust men cause your daddy beat you. I’m talking from the assumption that the past is alive in us, and that this can be a good thing.
Speaking of therapy, I sometimes lead a client through what is called “inner-child work”. Working with someone who gets anxious about being abandoned, for example, I sometimes might postulate that the part of them that’s getting scared is the little kid inside whom at some point probably really was abandoned. I’ll have the client get an image of themselves at this early age, and teach them how to soothe and reassure this inner child. Because that little kid is very much alive in the present. This can be powerful work, actually changing the past in a way, and thereby changing the present as well.
I can recall a time in my past I reached further back to find someone to heal me. It was the sexless, waning days of my first marriage, a dark and disheartening time for me. I reached out to Rosemary, a wonderful woman I knew back in college. She had recently gone through a divorce herself, and mailed me a tape of a song that had helped her through it. But most of all, though she was a thousand miles out of reach, she reminded me over the phone of the guy she knew back in school, one who was full of life and daring and who had turned her on — and who, she suspected, still was, and still could. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and helped shake me out of my lonely trance. A friend from the past was touching me, reminding and resuscitating me in the present.
I’ve found that not only my past, but my memory itself is alive, and not only in my mind but in my body as well. And it can spring to life via my senses (known as sense memories) like through touch or a song or certain smells.
Sometimes after sex, for instance, I lie back and can feel vestiges of the vitality I had down there as a 20-something, and this re-membering refreshes my whole body like a wave washing over a sun-baked beach.
Hey, maybe all of this is just me grasping at straws as I helplessly fall with my life down the hourglass. Maybe the existential view is the only valid one: That life is good, and therefore youth is better than age, because the older you are the closer you get to your death, and that’s bad. But sometimes when I choose (speaking of being existential) to mine and empower my past, it can empower me.
Taking this further, maybe one reason we are, or can choose to be, here, is to remind each other of the way we were, lest out of forgetting or despair we forever lose a spark still available to us.
Which would mean that, along with the past, people over 35 are actually worth something. Imagine that!