Have you ever found a pair of ticket stubs to a concert you went to a quarter-century ago when cleaning out an old drawer? You hold in your hand proof that you were somewhere in the past at a certain time, and even what building, row and seat, and what you heard for a few hours. Do you save the ticket stubs or toss them? Maybe you could jot the info down in a journal, or make an entry into Facebook Timeline. If you don’t, you’re throwing the past away.
I often throw my past away, and sometimes I regret it. Saving the past takes work. I turned 60 last year and my memory is in decline, so I often wish I had validation for lost memories. But saving the past often feels like hoarding, and hoarding scares me because the weight of past can become paralyzing. Some folks bury themselves in the past long before they die.
Most people don’t have eidetic memories. Have you ever wondered how biographers could write gigantic biographies of people who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago? George Washington and Abraham Lincoln left big historical trails to follow, but most people leave few clues to piece together. My father died when I was 19 and it took me years to realize that I knew nothing about him. I had memories and a handful of photos, which I thought was all I needed, but when I finally got around to examining those memories I realized I had zip, nada, nothing. I have no idea what was going on inside his head. Like, what was he thinking on his graduation day in the photo above? What did he hope to get out of life?
Recently I threw out decades of credit card bills, medical statements, receipts on big purchases, bank statements. I knew if I wanted to I could recreate at least my spending and medical history with those clues, but in the end, I chose to throw them all away.
Who are we? Are we what we think? Are we what we own? Are we what we did? Are we what we love? Are we what we hate? I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but I wonder what it would be like, because if we went some place new do we throw out who we were on Earth? Memories of my Dad are defined by Camel cigarettes and Seagram 7 bottles. If my Dad can’t have his cigs and booze, can he be my Dad in heaven? Or do they have bars and ashtrays on the other side?
And is that how the young man in the photo above expected to be remembered? By his bad dying habits?
There was a period in my life where I fanatically collect LPs. I had over a thousand of them. Collecting and listening to music is what made my life good and meaningful. I eventually sold or gave them all alway. I only have one LP now. Last year I had a fit of nostalgia for an album I heard in 1971 called Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blues Magoos. It was never reprinted on CD. I ordered a used copy off the internet and a friend gave me a turntable and I played that album a couple of times. What I heard was not what I remembered from forty years ago.
It takes a great effort to recapture the past once you throw it away. I know many people who never throw anything a way. I knew a guy who claimed he had every book he ever bought and read. I know that’s not true because he lent me a book and I never gave it back, and I’m sure I’m not the first. I have a piece of his past – sorry about that Bob. But is it a piece that matters? And which pieces do?
Does the past matter? I can go long periods of time without thinking about the past, but boy do I hate it when a memory pops up and I can’t place when and where I was. It bums me out that I can’t remember one face or name from kindergarten through third grade. I do remember returning to Lake Forest Elementary in my fourth grade year and meeting a girl name Helen and how it upset her that I didn’t remember knowing her from when we went to second grade together. I can remember a few people from 5th and 6th grade. That’s pitiful, ain’t it? In all my K-12 years I can barely remember and name more than a dozen classmates. Where did all those people go, I spent years with them.
Religious people agonize over being reborn after death – they just don’t want to let go, they’re just afraid of dying. But I think we die every day, every moment, I think we’re constantly throwing away the past. We’re new people every day. We go to sleep every night and our brains housecleans the day’s memories and throws out most of them. If we kept all our memories we’d be like hoarders buried under piles of useless crap.
But each night, and maybe not every night, the old noggin decides to keep a few bits of the past, so there’s a precedence for keeping some stuff. I wish I had kept a diary and took more photographs throughout my life. A case could be made that we should each be our own biographer, and maybe that’s the right amount of past to keep, what we could keep in one big book. Our brains aren’t very good with details, so we should jot the important ones down and take a few snaps to document our lives.
Now here’s my wish. I wish The Library of Congress would create a national digital archive where we could store our memoires, like a permanent blogging site that historians can depend on for mining memories about all of us. I know most of our autobiographies will go unread, but they’d be there. I’d love to read my father’s thoughts, and his father’s, and his father’s father, and so on.
There are things we do want to remember. Most of the past we throw away, but maybe we should start throwing away a little less.
JWH – 3/16/12
5 thoughts on “Throwing Away the Past”
memories are treasures, enjoyed your post
The digital age is going to make things worse. If I want to leave Henry any record of the past I’ve got to print things out and make sure it’s not just digital.
I am the kind of person who just throws almost everything away. It just does not matter to me most of the times what i did in the past. I just don’t dwell on it. It’s the present and future that worry me.
My philosophy is that i won’t find any meaning in what i’ve done in the past. That includes buying habits, books/movies read and watched. It also includes people i’ve met. Maybe that says something about my relationships in life with people.
For example if something happens to me tomorrow i know that most of the people i know will move on with their lives just fine. After a few years i might be a fond memory every now and then but no more than that. My parents are the ones who will be affected the most as there is something in the parent to child relationship regardless of age. But not vice versa i think.
I don’t know whether my belief in the meaning of life would change if i started gathering and storing evidence of what i’ve done throughout my life for myself and someone else to have.
Great, great piece.
Greetings, Mr. Harris:
Apologies that this isn’t regarding the blog post, but the email address for you that appeared to be at the bottom of the “About” part of your ranked “Classics of Science Fiction” list didn’t work for me, so I’m using this avenue. 🙂
Perhaps the way I saw the email address on your site, all in words and spaced, is a way to disguise it against misuse? I don’t know muck about the technical side of such matters.
Anyway, I figured it was time I thanked you for the list. I love the way it’s constructed. I love ranked lists in general, not because they’re “right” (they’re always “wrong”), but because they stimulate thought and debate.
For over a year I’ve been reading the list from the top down. I’ve gotten very nearly to #51, to the end of those with 14 citations (I read them in groups by that, to build mental agility). That’s about 25%. Another 3-4 years and I’ll be done! 🙂
I’m very pleased about how many were unknown to me. Wonderful stuff. It’s been invaluable learning and fuel for me too, both in how sci fi overlaps with my favorite subject of what I call “Daniel Quinn Ideas” (http://www.ishmael.org/Education/Readings/) and in my own writing (often sci fi) aspirations, which I’ve been hard at work at for almost 5 years.
One of the most interesting aspects of your fine list, as you know, and which I need to compensate for by checking your other references, is the dwindling of entries in the 80s, the near death of them in the 90s, and the complete death of them in the last decade. No doubt a result not of quality in those decades but of the reading scope of the list makers.
If you’re the sort of person who has time to communicate, I enjoy digging deep with it. 🙂
Thank you again, Sir.
I gotta get back to (be well, do good) work (and keep in touch).
I loved your article and related to whether to toss or not to toss.
I’ll save and read it again.
And be watching for more!