Sunday, May 1, 2016

You can't put your arms around a memory

Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

Don Draper- Mad Men

The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.

Milan Kundera

One of the things I hear most often as a therapist is people talking about the past and all of the things they have lost. And fair enough. Depression is highly correlated with loss, and it’s something we can all relate to. We’ve all lost something. Maybe it’s our youth, or our looks, or someone we loved.

Where we can make a mistake I think, is when we look at the past as some kind of magical time we can never replace and never return to. A belief that we had it good and we’ll never have it that good again. This is not, I believe healthy thinking.

I had this lesson presented to me recently on a Christmas trip to the lovely island of Rarotonga, when I scheduled a walk with the local guru who guides people up into the mountains of the islands and shares local knowledge of plants, herbs, and local legends. Although I was happy to be learning so much and enjoying the beautiful views of the island, he sensed a heaviness in me, and asked what was wrong.

And truthfully, there was something wrong. I was thinking about Christmas back in the United States, and all of the memories of snow, and food, and presents, and family and my heart was getting a little heavy. I felt that nostalgia, the “pain from an old wound” regarding Christmases gone by, and was all at once overwhelmed by the urge to travel back in time.

“Let me tell you something, doctor,’ my new friend began. “I can see you’re thinking about Christmases past and how you’d like to go back there.” (How did he know that!?) “But let me tell you something from one of your American songs. You can’t put your arms around a memory.”

I did indeed know that song, a classic from the 70’s by Johnny Thunders. It was used in the shows Californication and The Sopranos and a number of other shows I enjoyed, but I’d never really stopped to consider the full implications. Seeing as I had a real life guru here, I asked him to explain a little more.

“I’ve been all around the world my friend. And I can tell you I’ve had romances, family, children, and experiences in a number of the places I’ve lived and travelled. And this walk we’re doing now? I’ve done it over 4000 times over the years. And every time I see something different or meet someone new that forces me to think about life in a new way.”

That gave me pause. And there was certainly a good lesson about keeping our eyes open for new experiences every day. I could hear my patients arguing with this idea in my head. “But I’ll never be young again.” “No one wants to date an old lady!” “I don't have the energy to start over." "She was the only person that ever understood me.” 

All of these litanies are indicative of a “yes, but” approach to life. Yes, that sounds like good advice, but it just isn’t applicable to my life. My circumstances are uniquely special you see.

And now I was doing that shit too.

It’s strange where you learn things in life. Sometimes it’s in a book, or in a classroom, and sometimes it’s while you’re panting and weezing your way up a mountain on a little island in the middle of an ocean.

You can’t put your arms around a memory. Meaning, what’s gone is gone. It seems like a sad thing, but I’m not really sure that it is. Maybe when we stop “aching” to return to the past we can surrender and let these remembrances crystalize into fond memories.

You can only start where you are in life. Right here, and right now. That’s day 1. The only day you’ll ever have control over and the only chance to start putting one foot in front of the other again.

So the rest of this trip was quite a Christmas extravaganza, I realized I still had a lot of years left to create some memories, and I couldn’t wait to start. There were pigs to roast, islanders to dance with, and girls still left to disappoint.

And let me tell you something, it was one hell of a memorable Christmas. And I'm sure one day I'll be dying to come back and do it all again.

But honestly I probably never will.

Because you can't put your arms around a memory..