After my twentieth birthday last summer, I was able to put my finger on a sensation that had been bothering me for quite some time. It was the feeling that each new year I was adding to my life was more insignificant than the last. From 2016 to 2019, I have been in the same place, doing the same thing, and planning on continuing to do so at least until 2020. Very little seems to have changed.
I found that I could account for this feeling by a surprisingly dry truth about numbers. If you take the years you have lived and add another year, each new year you add will increase the years you have lived by a smaller proportion than did the one before it. Turning two means doubling the years you have lived. Turning twenty means adding only a small fraction. As it turns out, each year of my life is literally less significant than the one that came before.
Once I had a concrete explanation for this emotion I was feeling, I couldn’t help but see this as a confirmation for how I felt about the past. It explained why I had such extreme memories of the apartment complex I lived in until I was three years old. The community pool was massive (big enough to almost drown in), the monkey bars could never be reached, the ten year old neighbors were full-grown adults. When my family drove through the complex on a whim about a year back, I could not recognize one piece of it. It felt tiny and insular. I resolved in that moment to never forget the version of the neighborhood I had in my head, because I knew that there is no place in the world where that version still exists.
This way of thinking is dizzying and self-reinforcing. It has become extremely easy for me to convince myself that clinging wistfully to my past is a product of an objective truth: that our life becomes longer in length each year, that we have more to remember, and that we get older. And in that conviction, I enable myself to see the world with a complacent sort of nostalgia, one in which I continue to reject the present only until it is something I can look back on, at which point I hold on to it fiercely. Until now, I have seen this almost as a merit, as the ability to evoke places or impressions in my memory and to appreciate their beauty in retrospect. But I’ve come to realize—and now truly believe—that this viewpoint can be dangerous. It can teach us to distort the way we experience the world by waiting for something to be behind us before we are allowed to appreciate it.
I encourage those who read this, as well as myself, to not take this as an imperative to focus more on living in the present. We have all heard this advice countless times, and we know for a fact that it is not always possible to heed it. How we can we deny that we might derive pleasure from seeing the world through a backward-facing lens, even if doing so is self-destructive? After all, certain places and people from our lives can now only exist in memory. Instead, I encourage us to color some of our foresight with the richness and precision of our hindsight. In ten years, there’s a good chance that the mundanity and normalcy of our current lives will be a beautiful memory in our head. Why wait ten years? Maybe what our ten-year-older self sees in it, we have the ability to see right now.
Neeraj Ramachandran is currently a staff editor for Quarto. This is his first blog post.