When we use the phrase 'the time of my life', most often retrospectively, we refer to a period that we remember as one of deep happiness, intense feeling, an acute awareness of ourselves — a period we recognize, at the time we're remembering it, that was unique and will never come back. The middle (and late) stages of our lives are full of such insights to the effect that something was there in our youth that is now irretrievably lost.

(The phrase is also often used more loosely to express one's had some fun, but of course that's not the interesting usage; we're not talking here about simply the equivalent of saying that one's had a good time, but of saying it was the one time in one's life. That's what these reflections are about, even though it may not always be what people mean when they use those words.)

A good portion of our sense of self depends on our attitude to such memories: some get melancholy, others get dreamy; and there are those who quietly treasure them, and love to recall them from time to time at a peaceful hour when they are by themselves. Me, I often feel a wave of sadness sweep over me: it's a fresh shock every time to look back and face the facts of missed opportunities, failures from half-hearted pursuits, neglect of others that I subsequently came to regret bitterly; and although there are those episodes of a deeply satisfying happiness, too, they strangely trigger the same poignant sense of loss: they're a recollection only, of something that's gone forever. (That latter impression needs analysis: if the loss is one that actually came about as a consequence of my own actions, if it was up to me and I just messed it up, I'd rightly feel regret; though still it should rather be directed at my actions instead at a felt loss. In other words, if regret is appropriate, it can only be about what I'm responsible for. Else it isn't regret, but pointless whining.)

How should we deal with these feelings about our memories? They are taking us back to something unique, I have said: they're about parts of our lives — and not just in the trivial sense in which every portion of our past, every episode we've lived through could be called a part of our life. These episodes we're talking about are singular. Each of them has the character of something that you know will never happen again in that same way, and with that same intensity. Uniqueness implies loss — if it wasn't unique, it might be repeated; so when you remember it as unique, then it is already a thing of the past, of the kind that you can't have back.

There is something special about every stage in our lives, in fact, about every single stretch of time in them, especially our youth (with all the spirit, passion, and the recklessness typical of it). It's not the only time that is engraved in our memory. However, it's the first in the sequence, and so naturally it's what we will recall during all the later parts of our life. There is a certain asymmetry here: you can't get rid of all the memories of your past when you're old, though you can ignore your future to a certain extent when you're young. And memory, of course, does not just keep the happy, but equally the sad experiences; it makes no difference where the goodness (or the badness) came from: whether it was from within yourself or from an external source; and it generally seems the vividness and strength of our recollections has to do with how important and how deeply felt those experiences originally were.

Unless you are forgetful, the events of your past won't change (though your attitude to them may vary somewhat from time to time), and they will never disappear from what you remember to have been. And wouldn't it be shameful to forget? If what you did in those past times was the right thing to do (then), if you did well, if your stance was appropriate, then forgetting about it would be a foolish regress, a step in the direction of losing hold of your very self; if those past things are rather regrettable, distancing yourself from them seems like trying to avoid taking responsibility and wasting a chance to improve. So we'd better never forget. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.