I studied Psychology briefly while I was in high school.
There, I learnt how our brain stores memories like jigsaw puzzles dumped on the floor. Every time we try to remember something, our brain searches for the relevant pieces and binds them together to form a memory.
What’s fascinating is how our memories don’t stay fixed forever. Instead, each time a memory reassembles, we inadvertently start to alter them. Since we can’t possibly remember every single, tiny detail of our past, our brain fills in the gaps by borrowing pieces from our imagination and our emotions until suddenly, you end up with a slightly skewed version of events. It’s why you and your best friend can experience the same event and remember vastly different things. Or why eyewitness testimonies often contradict each other.
This psych lesson floated back into my mind recently when a reader asked me to write about loss and nostalgia. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the past, I understand the longing we feel when memories of old friends and relationships resurface.
All of us have experienced the loss of friends, estranged family members, and people who no longer fit into our lives. But, thanks to social media, we’re still connected to every single one of them. We see their updates pop up on our feed. We can type their name into the search bar and get lost scrolling through the highlight of their lives. After a while, we may even begin to wonder: what if they were still in my life?
Last year, memories of a past relationship would occasionally crop up during random, quiet moments. I would sit down at my desk to work only to wonder what they’d think about how much I’ve grown. If I ever visited places that we used to hang out, I would think back to the times we spent together or the stories we used to share. Dozens of questions would swirl around my mind. Did they ever think about me? Would we have lasted if we’d been better people? What would I ever say if I saw them again?
You’d think I was talking about someone I’d known for years. In reality, it was a short-lived fling and ended like most of my previous dalliances: crashing and burning.
That’s the funny thing about nostalgia. It’s like those filters on Snapchat that gives you flawless skin and makes you look lit from within; a picture of perfection you wish you could emulate every day. Every time I recalled those memories, I continued to add the filter over and over again. While my brain was reconstructing the pieces, I inadvertently wove in details I wished had happened. I repressed the cringey moments and glossed over the crashing and burning. I focused on the emotionally high parts of our relationship blurred out the lows. Before I knew it, my glossy, filtered version of events became the new memory and I started to feel the longing for those ‘good old days.’
When I confided these thoughts to someone else, they challenged me to remember the event exactly as it transpired; no filter added. Without the gloss, the reality was bleak, cringey and made me remember why we never worked in the first place. I had been longing for a fantasy that never actually existed.
My favourite author describes it like this: “I’m in awe of the way we romanticise the things we willingly left behind when the present moment starts testing us.”
I think that’s the most accurate depiction of how we operate. When things start to get hard, we seek solace in our memories by adding a filter and creating a picture-perfect past.
Be honest, how often have you thought back to an ex while you were in the thick of singleness?
Or, how about when you start to miss your old job because your new boss is turning up the pressure?
Perhaps you’ve thought about going back to old friends because the loneliness of the present moment is just too stifling.
Suddenly, we believe we were better off settling for the things we left behind.
I’ve definitely been guilty of letting my memories of the past hurt my ability to be present. I’ve let the ‘what if’s’ distract me from my current blessings and feel anxious from discontentment.
I think we have to be careful how much nostalgia we feel over the people and events in our past. When we’re the ones who walked away, we have to draw a balance between forgiving people who’ve hurt us and recognising there’s a reason they aren’t in our lives anymore. If we’re not careful, we may force open doors that God intended to stay close.
Don’t get me wrong; you’re allowed to look back at your past and marvel over how much you’ve grown. You can recall old memories and reminisce about the relationships that were near and dear to you. You can wonder how people are and wish them well no matter what they did to you.
But, at the end of the day, we have to be careful how much weight we put on our memories. We can either spend your days caught up in a fantasy or we can say ‘I’m going to make the most out of the present.’
Encouraging you always,