Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

The Lure of Living in the Past

Even if nostalgia isn’t your thing, you might be hard-pressed to escape it in the 21st Century. Susanna Schrobsdorff writes in this week’s TIME Magazine that living in the past is not only easier than ever now that our lives and so much pop culture have become digitized, it’s practically impossible to escape. Our last ten years have been better documented than any other decade, archived with countless digitized photos, videos, blog entries, emails, texts, and Facebook and Twitter comments.  Schrobsdorff writes:

“All that evidence of what we really said (in the past) messes with the version of ourselves we’ve created.” 

After all, if you've managed over time to smooth out your rough edges, you might not be so keen on dredging up your formal self. I cringe when I think of the worst episodes of my past, and if those moments had been documented and broadcasted over the Internet, I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning. Today’s generation gets no such slack. Those who participate in social media and other digitized forms of communication may never be able to escape their pasts, no matter how hard they try. 

For many, nostalgia is a comfort, a pleasant way to revisit the better moments of our lives. At a Super Bowl party last Sunday I admitted to a few friends that I’d recently rewatched a DVD of Super Bowl XXXI (Guess what? The Packers won!), and while I was initially made fun of for living in my Packer Past, my friends soon confessed that they’d relished the recent news stories commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Bears’ Super Bowl victory. Nostalgia can be fun. It’s why we reread books, rewatch movies, listen to old records, collect items from long ago, thumb through yearbooks and photo albums, read history and tell stories. It’s also why people are shelling out $80 to see the upcoming Carol Burnett tour (I’m one of them!), why Antiques Roadshow and Ken Burns are PBS mainstays, and why WDCB in suburban Chicago broadcasts old radio shows every Saturday on “Those Were the Days.”  

Nostalgia can also be a bit dangerous. Mae West popularized the quote, “Keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you,” and I’ve thought of this often as I go through boxes of old letters, yearbooks and tickets stubs, edit family videos and rearrange my vinyl.  I could spend the second half of my life doing little more than reliving various moments from the first half of my life. I’ve always been a nostalgic guy, and I’ve met others who share the same sensibility, the kind of people Ben Folds makes fun of in his song “Bastard.” (“You get nostalgic about the last ten years before the last ten years have passed.”)

But at the same time, I admire those who have no interest in revisiting yesterday’s playground: guys like Woody Allen, who’s career code is to work and continue to work, never looking back to watch his films once they’ve been completed; Peter Gabriel who’s refused to do a Genesis reunion; Tom Trebelhorn, the former Milwaukee Brewers manager, who once quipped (I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe it came from Milwaukee Magazine, July 1987, Volume 12, Number 7) that cemeteries should be bulldozed into golf courses. There’s something freeing about moving on to the next big adventure and eschewing the past. It’s what allows humanity to progress. But the sort of person who wishes to look to the future might have a tough time living today. Like Jimmy Buffett’s pirate, he may have been born too late.

For the rest of us, we might need to work a little harder at balancing our lives, substituting the comfort of yesterday for the unknown, resisting the lure of living in the past, or else – as Schrobsdorff aptly puts – at some point our past “…becomes a memory of remembering.”

Copyright, 2015, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved