Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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