The more we look at the past, the more we will miss the present. The past only exists in our mind. Our mind, however, is in charge of constantly reactivating it. We go back to the past again and again, to the point that there are those who get caught up in their memories. They fail to move on because the past holds them back with their chains. Thus they end up living in a lost time, where only longing lives and there is no room for change.
The “perfect” past trap
Of all the memories you can evoke, how many are positive and how many negative?
Chances are good that you have far more positive memories than negative ones.
Psychologists from Winston-Salem State University came to that conclusion, who also found that our memories are quite partial. Over time, our unpleasant emotions tend to fade or their impact is mitigated, a phenomenon known as “minimization.”
Minimization involves mitigating the emotional impact of negative experiences to allow us to regain some level of baseline happiness. Therefore, most people have a tendency to muffle negative events that they have experienced in the past, leaving positive emotions to prevail.
This is not a retrospective “error” of our memory. In reality, minimization is part of a healthy coping mechanism that operates in memory and allows us to move forward without having to carry an emotional burden that is too heavy. In fact, those same psychologists appreciated that people who do not have efficient minimization mechanisms are more likely to experience depression.
Declinism or Rosy Retrospection
“To look back to antiquity is one thing, to go back to it is another”, wrote the poet Charles Caleb Colton. The “trap” that our memory sets for us, making us think that the past time was always better, leads us to develop a sweetened image of what it was. We can have the feeling that everything was perfect. Then we look at the present and we are disappointed, while the future is outlined as disastrous, because we are convinced that we will never be so happy or full again.
Declinism or rosy retrospection is the belief that something, be it a country, a culture, or our lives, is experiencing a significant and possibly irreversible decline. Although declinism takes advantage of the positive bias of our memory, it goes far beyond a simple nostalgia because it implies a negative assessment of the present and contains the worst predictions for the future.
It does not only mean looking back longingly but thinking that we were good, now we are bad and in the future we will be even worse. It is as if the past blindfolds us to avoid being here and now. When we escape from the present we also leave behind the effort that comes with dealing with reality, while we get rid of the uncertainty that the future usually brings.
Since declinism feeds a negative image of the present and the future, it pushes us to live in the past. That past is presented as a safety rock and even offers us the possibility of manipulating it at our whim to imagine that we were much happier or luckier than we really were. As Harold Pinter said, “The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend you remember.”
But we have to be careful, it is a trick of the mind. It is an avoidance strategy whose bill we will end up paying. “One problem with gazing too frequently into the past is that we may turn around to find the future has run out”, as Michael Cibenko wisely pointed out.
How to use the past well?
The past can be a source of wisdom. Reservoir of happiness. And a refuge in difficult times. We can go back to it whenever we want, as long as we make sure we don’t get caught up in a nonexistent time. We cannot evade or forget our past, but neither is it smart to get caught up in longing for an illusory time.
The past is our memory, we must use it as a common thread of our biographical history, not as a place to camp. If lately we find ourselves reliving too much the past, it is likely that longing is telling us that we have a problem in the present from which we want to escape. Therefore, declinism is always an alarm signal that we must not ignore.
Instead, we need to learn to let go. Open ourselves to uncertainty. Confident that these difficult days will also pass and become memories. Because as Daphne Rose Kingma said: “Holding on is believing that there’s only a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future”. We must make sure to give each day the place, attention and time it deserves in our lives.
Walker, W. R. et. Al. (2003) Life Is Pleasant – and Memory Helps to Keep It That Way! Review of General Psychology; 7(2): 203–210.