When I got out of the Army I had accumulated almost 24 months of combat duty, and as a reconnaissance specialist, I was deep in the thick of it. After I got out, I had a very difficult time finding joy in the activities I once loved, if I found any joy in them at all. I was broken, searching for a morsel of happiness, anything that would warm my chest. After years of searching, I would discover that I’d simply been searching in the wrong place—the past.
We grow old. I know, “Spoiler alert!” As we get old our tastes change. For example, all of us (or at least most) have matured out of our baby toys. We no longer find any entertainment in rattles and our willingness to remain in soiled undergarments is, or should be, zero. Growing out of things is part of the human experience. As we gain new experiences, the things that bring us happiness change as well. Gathering the boys to play Transformers and G.I. Joe matures to shooting hoops and rolling dice; six-packs of root beer become six-packs of craft beer; the screeching tires of a Matchbox car gives way to the roar of a ’69 Chevelle. Once those tastes mature, there’s no turning back. But that’s exactly what we try and do.
I heard it in combat too many times to count: “When we get back, I’m going to get back into (insert childhood activity, e.g., fishing).” It rarely ever made them happy. Most times they returned to their nostalgic activities only to find they’d grown out of them. The thought of making laser sounds as we hold Optimus Prime feels as ridiculous as it sounds. I’d much rather get into a substantive conversation about the state of the union, ethics, physics, writing, etc. But when we’ve experienced a traumatic event, we crave joy and scuttle to the safe places of our past like a fiend looking for a hit, chasing the dragon. After multiple failed attempts at finding joy in those nostalgic activities that once filled us with glee, doubt begins to set: “Fishing used to make me so happy. If fishing can’t make me happy… What’s wrong with me? Can I even be happy anymore?”
The simple answer is yes, and the simple solution is to change one’s perspective. But if it was easy, everyone would do it and no one would suffer from depression. We can’t choose what we like and dislike, or how we feel about something; it’s a reaction to an event like any of the other senses/emotions. We can choose how we react to certain situations, and we can learn to enjoy certain activities, but we can’t choose how we feel about something. Again, if feeling a certain way was as simple as a choice, then people would simply choose to not be depressed, angry, jealous, etc. But, no matter how much we choose to enjoy something, ten straight hours of fingernails on a chalkboard will never crack a smile.
We are a conglomeration of our experiences and genetics. Genetics gives us the foundation from which to grow, and our experiences help mold us into who we are. Almost all of us also suffer from a type of psychological time dilation, where we feel far younger than we actually are. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thought that their parents’ had stuff figured out far better than we do; however, the truth of the matter is that they felt the same way. So, not only do we have the precedence that certain activities (i.e., fishing) will bring us joy, a part of us still feels like that little kid on the shoreline. But we aren’t, and the type of joy we might experience on the shoreline won’t be the same either. We’ve experienced far too much in our life to ever be that kid again. I’ve personally witnessed the worst humanity has to offer; things I would never want that little kid on the shore to know. Sure, I can go back to the shoreline but it would be another lesson in futility to think that I would find the same quality of joy as I used to. For as much as I might try and remake the event to be exactly as it was when I was a child, nothing about it will ever be the same. As Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. The futility comes in trying to resurrect the past rather than enjoying it where it’s supposed to be—in the past. Not only that, but learning what makes the current us happy, and appreciating our evolving tastes. We might not feel the same level of joy on the shoreline as we did when we were eight, but we also don’t get as excited about getting our own can of soda and that’s okay. We aren’t the same people and that’s also okay.
The past reminds us of who we were and how much we’ve changed. It reminds us that we’ve survived everything life has thrown at us, no matter how hard it got. The past is our strongest tool and one of our greatest strengths; however, it is not ubiquitous in its usage, and unlike us it can never change.
Don’t feel sad for the joys that have faded. Be glad that you felt them in the first place. Enjoy the present and do not let it pass, for it will one day become the past you so long to repeat.