Kierkegaard, Jonah Hill, My Big Sister, and Four Pairs of Old Socks
some thoughts on resentment and nostalgia
“Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward.” Søren Kierkegaard
This morning I finally threw away four pairs of socks.
I used to love them. They were warm and wonderful. When they were new, they were the best socks I had and they have served me well. But for a very long time now they have been neither warm nor wonderful. They are threadbare and full of holes. And yet I have kept them in my top drawer for years; finally throwing them away felt more significant than perhaps it should.
For a few weeks now, really since the beginning of Lent, I have been reflecting on the past. More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on reflecting on the past. Meaning, I have both found my mind wandering to scenes from the past, especially moments at House For All Sinners & Saints (like the beauty of our candle-lit Ash Wednesday, and the chaos of having seven baptisms at the Easter Vigil, and the sight of a couple dozen kids running off to the children’s liturgy, and the sound of over 200 people singing Schubert’s Deutsche Mass acapella and in 4-part harmony), AND I have been thinking about what purpose these memories serve, and how I relate to them now that that time is gone.
(here’s a piece from a year and a half ago when I was (surprise, surprise) asking similar questions: )
I guess I am wondering (again): what purpose does nostalgia serve, especially when it leads to melancholy. Is it possible to think upon the shining events and relationships from our past that are no more and do so without - and here’s the point - getting stuck?
There is an image from Stutz, the documentary comic actor Jonah Hill made about his extraordinary therapist, that has stayed with me since the day I saw it; it has to do with mazes and forward movement. From the beginning of the film, Phil Stutz speaks about the imperative to move forward in life. Forward movement.
Perseverating negatively about the past, especially in terms of our resentments about what other people did to us, keeps us stuck in a maze. And being in that maze keeps us from moving forward. And it is difficult to leave the maze because our ego demands fairness. And since it is the PAST, usually there is no real resolution to be had. There is no adjudicatory process available to us, and even if there were, what are the odds that the people we resent tell the exact same version of the story of what bastards they were as we do.
Then he said this: Your quest for fairness puts your life in hold. (prevents forward motion)
So today, as I threw out my once warm-and-wonderful socks, I wondered if, at times, the same could be said about our good memories; those nostalgic snapshots of moments from years ago when we had ____.
(fill in the blank: community, fun, youth, health, ambition etc.)
Do those wistful longings for what was but is no longer, also keep us from moving forward in life?
I’d never thought of that before, but maybe there’s something to it.
We may pine for what we had in the past, even while we know that nothing stays the same. Not really. Our bodies keep changing even when we don’t want them to, some of our relationships deepen even when we had no idea they would, some of our friendships end even when we never thought they could, our society changes even if we wish it’d slow down. Our children grow and change without us ever being able to fully keep up. Those perfectly warm and wonderful socks get worn down … but the thing is, those socks get worn down by serving their purpose.
And there’s the rub for me.
My big sister once told me that friendships are in our lives for: a season, a reason, or a lifetime - and we never can predict which one. When I try and cling to times and feelings and relationship that were but are no more, I wonder if perhaps I keep from appreciating their purpose in my life. Because not every time and feeling and relationship is meant to last forever, which can be a really painful thing for me to accept. So when I feel stuck in a tide pool of resentment or nostalgia, maybe the forward movement I am looking for comes from practicing gratitude for the purpose that those times (good and bad) have served in my life.
What keeps YOU moving forward?
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Something my therapist told me after my divorce: "Clarity is more important than closure." So, keep looking for that clarity. Lose the illusion of closure. That's what keeps me going.
I love the maze analogy. I grew up on a farm, and every year we hosted a Fall Fest that included a big corn maze that took up the better part of a 60-acre field (about 60 football fields). Sometimes people would get nervous that they'd get lost inside. We always gave them the same tip: if you get turned around and are starting to feel desperate, imagine the maze is solid walls and that you've placed your left hand onto the wall to your left. Imagine keeping your hand on that wall at all times, and start walking. Wherever that left wall turns, you turn, even if it is clearly a dead end. By anchoring yourself to the physical structure of the maze in this way and putting one foot in front of the other, you'll eventually reach the end. You might encounter literally every inch of the maze, but eventually it will lead you to the end.
Holy Week and springtime have brought a new wave of grief for me as I continue to process many losses in a short period of time. I'm very much in the maze of memories you wrote of so eloquently. Right now, small and meaningful service commitments (sponsoring others in recovery, tending a grave-garden in a local cemetery, helping my drag family with their shows, etc.) keeps me putting one foot in front of another, while my morning routine of meditation, prayer, and physical movement serves as the wall anchoring me to a direction I am able to go.