Yesterday, I wrote a business-oriented post, seven ways to make 2017 into your best year ever. This post was the draft of that, both more personal and less business-like.
It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve gotten a lot of Christmas greeting from colleagues and clients, so this post is sort of my late Festivus letter to all of them.
Earlier this week, my sister texted me she was “feeling nostalgic for old times.” I texted back “’tis the season.”
That got me thinking. I was driving to an appointment two hours away, up a long rural highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Dry roads, quite safe, but plenty of snowy scenery.
As I drove, I started wondering why happy memories can make us so sad, especially during the holidays.
And then I had an epiphany of sorts.
I’ll get to the epiphany in a moment. First, though, I’d like you to consider a startling inconsistency in the way we think about memories.
Conventional wisdom says that painful memories scar us for life. Trauma, a difficult upbringing, an injury or illness… we supposedly carry these with us like baggage on our back.
By contrast, conventional wisdom considers good memories to be fleeting, always tinged with nostalgia for the good times that will never come again.
During the holidays, people are particularly prone to this. Like my sister, we compare the holidays of our childhood with our experience today and find today wanting.
Or worse, we try to recreate that feeling by recreating the events. The archetype is Clark Griswold in the movie Christmas Vacation, who turns the holiday into an ordeal through a nostalgic quest recapture the past.
Do you see the inconsistency?
We tend to consider painful memories to be potent, powerful and present, but consider pleasant memories to be weak (at best) or (at worst) yet another reason to be miserable.
But what if turned conventional wisdom on its head? What if we decided to do the opposite?
We know from neuroscience that memories are plastic and that our minds create them anew every time we “remember” an event.
Furthermore, we also know from neuroscience that it’s only our beliefs about those memories that give them meaning and relevance.
So, suppose we just decided to treat the good and happy memories powerful, potent and present, and treat the unhappy memories as mere wisps of what once was?
As I drove up the highway, I starting remembering all the wonderful things that had happened in my life, but refusing to feel nostalgic about them, I began to experience the happiness I had felt once felt.
That was my epiphany. I realized that everything wonderful that had ever happened in my life was still happening, right then, right now, making me who I was, and who I am, right then, right now.
I gave happiness and joy the power that conventional wisdom says belongs only to the disasters of our lives. I didn’t listen to podcasts on the phone. I didn’t think about the work I had to do. I didn’t even listen to music.
It was the best four hours of highway driving I’ve ever experienced!
When I got home, I realized I have the power to make 2017 whatever I wanted it to be, because in every moment of the coming year, I can experience any and every wondrous event of all the years that have come before.
And when I looked at my son, 12, and daughter, 10, I didn’t miss the peanuts they’d been, or pine for Christmases past, either theirs or mine. I understood in that moment those events and emotions they were all here, all now, every age they’d been, every Christmas.
It was and is all part of the now, all happening this second, as vivid in my mind as I wish it to be. The best Christmas ever, in fact.