I got an email a couple of months ago from someone I hadn’t heard from since high school. He and I were never close, but we knew one another from taking all the upper-level math and science classes together. He had been to a class reunion the night before and looked me up online to tell me about people asking about me — and even thinking he might be me.
I’ve never been to a reunion of any kind. Over the years, I’ve been tracked down by reunion committees who seem to assume that everybody is eager to know when a class is getting together, but I’ve never been tempted to go to a reunion. Not for high school. Not for college. Not for any workplace.
I’m not mad at anybody from the past. I simply don’t care. All of those people are strangers to me now. For years, I’ve puzzled over why I seem to feel so differently than most other people do about such things and I think I’ve finally figured it out. Most people seem to believe their best times were in the past — and they’re eager to relive some of that past — but I’m convinced my best and most interesting days lie ahead.
Unless someone from my past is going to be part of my future, that person has no place in my life, because the past is dead and buried.
I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of days, because I got an email Monday with the news that a member of one of my favorite old bands has died. The leader of the band — a musician who I admire greatly — sent out a grief-filled reminiscence about his long-time friend and band-mate.
For the band, their glory days are mostly behind them. The response to this man’s death was entirely appropriate and reasonable, so I’m not saying there was anything wrong with it. But reading him reminisce about his lost friend crystalized why I feel so different about the past. I have an interesting past — and I have some interesting stories to tell — but the future is where my attention lies.
I’ve had to spend a lot of time lately thinking and writing about the past as it relates to my parents, but that has felt more like trying to come to terms with what made me the person I am today. It’s been more like therapy and wading through a swamp in an effort to never go back there again.
I’ve recently become aware that a friend of mine is completely clueless about how much he’s changed since I first met him a couple of decades ago. Some things have come up that make him question whether he’s really changed more than he realizes. I’ve seen the changes — they’ve been obvious to me — but he prefers not to see them, because seeing where he came from would force him to admit that he had been some things he would find unethical now.
That’s another reason the past can be dangerous. If you’re an emotionally healthy person, you aren’t the same person you were 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30 years ago. But focusing on the past — and focusing on the people from your past — can easily keep you living in the mold of the person you were back then.
I’m a radically different person today than I was 30 years ago. I’ve much different even than what I was 10 years ago. I expect to keep growing and be an even different person in the future. I don’t have any desire to become weighed down by what I was in the past, much less with other people’s false ideas of what I was.
I was reminded last week that people who knew you in the past often have boxes in their minds for what they think you are — and they are eager to stick you into those boxes and keep you there. I heard from someone who I used to know and the things she had to say were full of preconceptions about me. It was a mixture of accurate things which were true years ago and her false impressions of things that were never true.
Such people who knew you from the past — especially people for whom you played an important supporting role at some point — don’t want to let you out of the mental box they have for you. Depending on who the person is, that can be annoying or it can be toxic.
I’ve found that people from the past are rarely going to understand who you are today. That makes sense, I suppose. They don’t have the context to understand the changes you’ve gone through and they usually have an emotional investment in seeing you as that person you used to be (or that they believed you to be).
I used to think I could explain myself to people from the past and they would “get me.” For a long time, I thought that about my father. I’ve thought it about other people. But I’ve rarely found it to be true. I’ve found that the best I can do — in many cases — is to walk away and build different lives without those people.
Sufjan Stevens touched on this in his song “Should Have Known Better,” from the album called “Carrie and Lowell,” which deals with his relationship with his dysfunctional mother. He sings:
Nothing can be changed
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
There are people from our past who can choose to be part of our future, if we choose to allow them to be. But for those who want to leave things as they were in the past — or who want to sit on the sidelines of your life — I see no place for those people.
I’m focused very clearly on building a future for myself and for the people who I choose to be in my life. I’m not angry at the people from the past. I’m not upset with old classmates. I don’t wish ill to old girlfriends or family members. I don’t have bad will for any of them.
But if you don’t have a place in my future, our past is nothing but history. I want to live in the future I’m building, not in the pages of a history book where you’re not going to allow me to be who I am today. You can either come with me — or stay in the past without me.