Today, January 1, 2022 is my mother's birthday. I am always feeling a warmth in my heart for her on her on this day. Well, sort of…she isn't here anymore, she died about 18 months ago, and even then she wasn't really around, having suffered 2 years of inability to speak and function in many ways, something that a major stroke caused. Add that to 2-3 years of increasing dementia that preceded that horrible stroke and we have a real mess for her later years (she died at 91). But that does not mean I don't still have that little buzz in my heart for her on this day. As I do for my father on October 15th, when he arrived in this world, and even on September 8th, their wedding anniversary, a date that stuck in my mind for over 64 years. Does this make sense? Not to everybody, I have found.
Many people would look askance at this kind of "nostalgia", after all my parents are no longer here, just time to move on and "go on living", as the phrase goes. The term “nostalgia” comes from the Greek “nostos,” meaning a longing to return home. The feeling is as if remembering things from the past must interfere with the "get on with life" type of attitude.
Actually "nostalgia" used to be considered a debilitating disease, did you know that? Years ago "nostalgia" was considered to be something that made you weak, unable to cope, the military really had it in for this kind of thing. The term "nostalgia" was not the kind of sentimental emotion we associate it with today, but a type of catchphrase under which they placed all types of emotional distress. During the U.S. Civil War, 1861-65, for example, there were more than 5,000 recorded cases in the Union army — they were often subjected to shaming and bullying tactics. Such soldiers were likely suffering from a variety of conditions, from PTSD to depression to extreme exhaustion, but they all got the "nostalgia" label.
Even in the 1950's and 1960's the approach of "life review" was frowned upon. The psychology, psychiatry, and gerontology textbooks often devalued reminiscence and memories. Reminiscing was thought to be an early diagnostic sign of senile psychosis—today it would be "dementia" or Alzheimer's disease—and people who engaged in reminiscence were thought to be "living in the past", even considered "boring" and garrulous." At best, thinking back on your life, reflecting, telling stories and memories from it, showing old letters, photos and movies- all this was- and for many people still is- just something "old people do", never really considered very valuable, helpful or a good "productive" use of one's time. "After all", the idea goes, "old people don't work, they have lots of time on their hands."
I'm sure most of what I have written above won't come as a surprise to most of you. You might even have these thoughts yourself- I used to. But I feel that this attitude is not only ageist at its core, it's also very limiting, stagnating, hurtful and I would even suggest, psychologically and spiritually damaging.
The "Past" gets a bad rap. We always seem to be running away from it, negating it. Social media is a great example, you only really see the most recent post or headline, nobody seems to care what happened "this morning" if this evening something new happened. If you find something that was written a year or two ago, well, that's ancient history to many, why "go back so far". The Past gets a bad rap because something in our culture does not see it as valuable, the Past is dead, old, we need the new stuff, so they say, to get out there and hustle, beat our competition, innovate, stay up to date. If someone tells you that you "live in the past", it is not exactly a compliment, is it? The intention is very clear: you are not with it.
I would greatly question this "past- animosity" as a vestige of the old "nostalgia as disease" days. As I see it the Past is all that has made us what we are today! The accomplishments, survival, growth, experience, knowledge, insights- where did they come from if not from all that the Past has offered us? Isn't knowing, remembering, cherishing and teaching from the Past a precious resource that can always help us on our journey in life? What are people so afraid of, why this fear of the Past, where does it come from that "knowing and learning from the Past" in any way hampers our development and success in life?
I am fascinated and so very curious about what went on before I got to where I am today; stories about history, my family genealogy, culture, language, what and why people made the decisions they did, how ideas came into being to create a reality that has so influenced what is going on in my life TO THIS VERY MOMENT. Nothing moves me more than to see old photos of people I grew up with, to remember events and experiences from the past, to learn new things about "old events", even the painful and tragic ones- to me it is a never ending exploration full of richness, insight- the journey to the Past is never dull, always illuminating and full of "new vistas". Yes, I realize this might sound "weird" to many people. I am used to it. When I lived in Japan in my twenties and studied Shiatsu with ladies in their fifties and sixties, younger Japanese would always be amazed at my interest and laughingly say- "You are interested in that old stuff?"
To be frank, I feel sad for people who can't see the beauty in linking up with their past. And I am quite sure they feel sad for me as well…
I have always been future-driven, I bet most of you have as well. What will I be when I grow up, what will I do on the weekend, my next trip or trek, my "vision", my goals, what I will need to do now in order to reach where I want to reach, and so on and so forth. In fact, I have found that many of my clients are especially impressed by the ease in which I can work with them on building their "game plan", more impressed than I myself am, since it is really rather intuitive for me. I have had a life of being self-driven to goals, often changing, each time I have a "new goal", I can get easily excited and quickly write up "the plan" to get there.
I don't knock this skill or orientation, and I certainly don't want to lose it, but in recent years I have started to wonder if my "future orientation" has not dampened my love for Past and concentration on Present. Our society definitely stresses the Future- anticipation, expectation, promotion- it is as if our life does not really have too much value today, in the Present, if we are not fully planned for the Future.
Yet, as I write this, and despite what I have written, I can see that my mind, heart and soul remains as "future-passionate" as always; the trip to Rwanda that I had to cancel due to the pandemic but intend to get it back soon; my doctoral research on second generation Holocaust survivors in their second half of life, reflecting on their life path, choices, search for meaning and legacy; the training that awaits me in logo therapy and existential psychology; the sageing-related workshops I hope to do, the individual coaching for cultivating meaning in the second half of life; the deepening of my yoga practice, the Arabic I am studying, the Israel folk dancing that I am dancing; the 6:00 AM study with my friend, the dear Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Danny Bialik at the synagogue down the road of the philosophical and mystical works of Rabbi Kook…so when is all this going to happen if not in the Future? And I will certainly need "a lot of Future" to deepen all this that I have in my heart to do. How will that work exactly?
Perhaps as I age and realize that my future is "getting shorter", I dare and question the "holiness" of future planning. Or maybe it is 2 years of the Covid pandemic which has very clearly shown us that we can't know our future even if we would like to think we can. We all have a lot to learn on this one, I believe.
With all the talk of the Past and the Future, do we have any attention and energy left for our Present? We ALWAYS live in the present, even though our awareness of such is usually weak.
I write these words after having just come back from a 2.5 hour online "Zen Retreat" from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to usher in the new year. It was before and after midnight in Santa Fe, here in Israel it was already 7:00 AM. It is an old Zen custom to do Zazen meditation over the transition time between one year and the next. This, as meditation always is, is a practice of "presencing" and being aware of each breath, each moment, as it comes and goes. Such meditation has been with me, off and on, for over 3 decades; for over 3 decades I practice sitting and watching how my thoughts or sleep carry me away, just to bring them back to the present moment and start all over again. It always amazes me how easy it is to lose the Present, but how easy it is to bring it just back.
Actually, my desire to register for this event came from the Past. It was New Year's Eve 1985 in Japan, a memory deeply embodied in my Past that prompted this- I sat then in meditation for over an hour, every so often hearing bells being sounded in between being slightly hit on my shoulder by a Zen monk who was doing his job to help those meditation stay present.
On January 1, 2009 I was privileged to carry out another "Zen moment of meaning". I had somehow convinced my mother that I wished to perform an old Japanese custom to view the first sunrise of the new year, with her: it was the start of her 80th year and my 50th year on earth. As usual, my mother did not understand what this "mishigas" (crazy idea in Yiddish) was about, but she consented to going out at 6:30 AM on a cold Jerusalem morning to see the sun, and the memory was created forever more. My mother, once again, my dear mother.
I am keenly aware of the fact that since I began writing this post my future has gotten just so much shorter, and my Past? It has just grown a bit more. For me that is quite exciting in that I don't really know where the Past ends and the Future begins - could it be that they always go on, nourishing each other, and never end?
Happy New Year 2022 to all.