Lately, tender images from my past have been popping up, unbidden: my childhood home, the family cottage in Wisconsin; hikes to alpine lakes and along the ocean coast.
It’s an adage that the elderly live in their memories because that’s all we have. This is especially true for those whose lives have been reduced because of health issues, who can’t partake in their former lives—whether it’s hiking, taking care of grandchildren, volunteering, singing in the choir or gardening. For most seniors, healthy or not, there’s no doubt that life shrinks as we get older: friends die, we move to smaller spaces and avoid city driving or stop driving altogether.
But there’s a societal judgment that dwelling in the past is not mentally healthy. For one thing, we can put on rose-colored glasses and distort our views of our lives: be overly sentimental about our long-dead parents; remember only the good parts of our work life; or glorify old friendships that may not been as rosy as we want to remember.
The danger of romanticizing our pasts is that we can blind ourselves to the beauties and challenges of the world right now. We can sink into memories of our glorious youth and fail to see the glories of today: the wonders of cell phones and computers; the courage and inventiveness of young people; nature as it moves through the seasons; and, of course, the funny cat and dog videos on YouTube.
I often wonder if the past looks appealing now because the world seems less stable. Part of me yearns for a time when life was simpler—only four TV channels to choose from rather than 400—and kinder: before mass shootings, before this country divided into two opposing groups; a time when you didn’t worry that a fellow motorist would shoot you for entering their lane too fast—or too slow.
And yet there are good reasons to reminisce. When our life narrows and as we are increasingly either ignored or treated with condescension by younger people, it helps to remember our accomplishments and feel proud of what we did with our lives, whether it’s raising families, going on adventurous vacations or succeeding in challenging jobs. When society treats us like throw-aways, it helps to remember the fullness of our lives.
These days, with so much turmoil in the world, I do a gratitude practice every morning, remembering all the goodness in my life: my parents who unselfishly raised seven children, and my grandparents, who supported us in so many ways; all the friends, some long gone, who helped make this journey joyful; the vacations to places that gave me a broader view of the world; my good luck in working for newspapers, which provided friends and challenges I could never have imagined.
My life has been rich, and I don’t want to forget that. Bring on the memories.