Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Uses for Year in Reviews

Look through any news site or blog today, and you will be presented with the same item: The Year in Review. The Washington Post has a visual twist on the theme (who doesn't like pictures?), offers us a Year in Business, and my own Naperville Sun--presumably without anything else to write about--presents no fewer than three Year in Reviews.

What is this fascination with looking back, with quantifying our experiences, victories, failures? Yes, you can quote Santayana to death with your those-who-don't-remember-the-past nonsense, but what I'm particularly interested in is the essence of nostalgia. In my late childhood I spent hours looking through my old notebooks and journals, and in my adolescence and early adulthood I have meticulously kept track of significant events (and sometimes insignificant ones). Was it because I thought that if I wrote it all down I would be able to use that knowledge later on in life? Did I think I could synthesize the sum of my existence in order to be a better person in the future?

Perhaps a small part of me held this view, but I never truly thought that keeping a catalogue of the past would accumulate into a better future self. I did not, and do not, think that the mere existence and remembrance of one's past experiences cause one to be a better person (though I do, of course, recognize that these make up who we all are in the present). But to think that keeping
the past in mind--being mindful of what one has been through--somehow causes one to be a better person is simply not true.

Why, then, do I keep records of the past? It's simple. Fear. Fear of losing what's already been lost. Fear that the future won't be quite as grand as the past. For if we remember, if we think back to the past, we are able to relive just for a moment our previous lives, our previous selves. We can say, I remember when that was me, I remember that a piece of that person resides in me now.

But there's the danger, isn't it? To think that the old self is somehow recoverable is fallacy, and this is the temptation practicers of nostalgia must resist. So when perusing all these Year in Reviews, sure, look at the pretty pictures and remember what used to be. But also remember that it won't ever be that way again.

And for many elements of 2008, that's not such a bad thing.

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