Living in the Past

I just got back from a wonderful trip to visit friends and family in Paris.  It had been a long time since the last time I was there.  25 years.  (It is hard to even conceive of that amount of time passing.)

While I was there I tried to live in the present: Take in the architecture; soak up the culture; sit in the cafes and experience the life of this timeless city.  Underneath the surface, and without my conscious awareness, my mind was in the past.  I was fantasizing about a life trajectory if I had never left Europe 25 years ago.  And, those thoughts merged so seamlessly with my experience in the present that I didn’t even know that they were affecting my experience in the moment.

When I got back to New York, I went to see the film, “Midnight in Paris.” The spectacular cinematography transported me back to vacation.   IMDB describes the film as follows: “A romantic comedy about a family traveling to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple forced to confront the illusion that a life different from their own is better.”

I identified with the main character who struggles with a tendency to live in an idealized past.

The film reminded me that living in the past is a theme that emerged from my research on aging with HIV.  Throughout my interviews, the men talked about the past.  In “Aging with HIV” I introduced you to “Paul” (not his real name.):

Entering Paul’s apartment is like going through a time warp.  The walls are filled with photos of Paul and his friends in their twenties and thirties.  All of his artwork and decorations are from the 1970s and 1980s.  Even Paul’s moustache, his clothes, and the way he styles his hair are reminiscent of the clone look of the 1970s.  During an interview with Paul I drew a line with one end in the past and one in the future and asked him to point to where he was.  He said, “Right there.  Oh, yeah, I’m in the past.”  

After interviewing Paul, I saw more subtle examples throughout these men’s lives of the conflict between living in the past vs learning from the past.  Living with HIV can reshape one’s sense of time.  Life can feel as if it stopped with diagnosis, or the death of friends.  And memories of a fun-filled past can be comforting when illness and age make life seem dull.

There is a lot to learn from the past.  The act of reminiscing can help us live more fully in the present.  When we reflect on our past we remember people and places that were important in our histories, and we remind ourselves of aspects of our identity that have been lost over time.  Even painful emotions like loss and regret can be an important learning tools as we live in the present and look toward the future.

The challenge is to be able to learn from the past (reminisce and have our feelings) without living in the past (getting mired in regret or fantasy) in a way that prevents us from living our lives fully in the present.

The drift into the past can be quite subtle and sometimes we need a gently push to return to the present.  One question we can ask ourselves is: How can these memories, thoughts and fantasies of the past help me with the issues I face today?

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