How Do I Stop Living in the Past?
I'm romanticizing old relationships. I want to live in the present.
¡Hola Papi! is the preeminent deranged advice column from writer and author John Paul Brammer, now living on Substack! If you’ve ever wanted advice from a Twitter-addled gay Mexican with anxiety, here is your chance. Support this column by sharing it and subscribing below, and send him a letter at email@example.com
Do you think you've ever gotten over anyone? Because I don’t think I have. Whenever I ask my friends I’m always hoping they will say no. I want to commiserate because at this point in my life I can't imagine ever feeling a sense of content detachment as I look back on past relationships. Even as I try to reassure myself that there are valid, non-malicious reasons they had to come to their ends, I cling to the best parts of them, as if nothing will be that good again (despite my having absolutely experienced things as good as them since they ended).
I am desperate to stop romanticizing the past. To be at peace with the knowledge that past-me knew what she was doing, and I don't have to feel stupid for the decisions that I've made. Any advice on how to get started?
Over It (I Wish)
Howdy, Over It!
It brings me no pleasure to report that I do know exactly what you mean. It’s a “big mood,” as the children call it. I think we’ve all taken our trips down Nostalgia Lane. And, you know, that’s fine! That’s normal. What’s not fine is when we try to build a house there and move in.
Nostalgia is a fickle friend. So often, it’s fantasy masquerading as historical record. I have this one relationship in my past where the highs were so incredibly high. When I think back on it, I swear the sun was yellower, everything was more golden, and I was a more complete person, more capable of love and happiness.
Omitted, of course, are all the things between those peaks. I’ve all but forgotten the anxiety that came with wondering if this guy was going to leave me, wondering if I was really ready to be monogamous with him, and the bumps and bruises that come with being in any relationship. When everything else was whittled away, what I was left with was a sculpture of my own design. It was made of real stuff, yes, but my biases had twisted it into a more alluring shape.
This would have been good and well. After all, it’s my life, they’re my memories, and I suppose I ought to be able to do with them what I please. The problem was, though, that I didn’t recognize my own hand in shaping the narrative of that time. Deep down, I actually thought life was more golden, the world was softer, and I was better back then. That’s just how it was.
It might make one ask… Why would I do that? Why would we as humans do that? Why would we paint bygone eras of our lives as some sort of romantic idyll, if not to torture ourselves? But I don’t think it’s all bad. I think of nostalgia as a sort of natural inebriant. It mixes the bitter taste of loss with the warmth of our fondest memories. It’s a pleasurable pang, one that tells us, yes, life can be difficult and we lose things, but it’s worth it to be alive. Being alive is how we get to the good stuff that we can look back on with happiness.
It also helps us with the not-so-great memories. I mean, I often feel nostalgic for the times my Abuela left me in the casino parking lot with my Gameboy Color to go play slots. I remember vividly smelling like chlorine from my swimming practice at the YMCA, looking for rare Pokémon in the grass. I view it as a simpler time when I had fewer problems. And yet, I would not like to be sitting in a hot car in a casino parking lot right now. Nostalgia itself is what makes it seem like a great idea. In this way, it can be a big help in keeping us trucking along.
But like anything that brings us pleasure, it can be overdone and used as a form of escapism. When we are in pain, when we’re lonely, when we’re miserable, nostalgia can creep in and tell us, “Remember when things were good? Remember when life was better?” This can actually make us feel worse about the present for its refusal to conform to our idea of a good time. That’s a problem because, and this is the kicker, you can’t make good memories while you’re spending all your time in the past.
So here is my advice, Over It. I want you to entertain the idea that you’re not so much trying to get over these past relationships as you are trying to get over the idea of them. The decisions you made to end them at the time were decisions based in reality. The ones you’re making about them now are more based in abstraction. They can’t really be compared. They’re happening on two different planes. You’ve just overstayed your visit to the Nostalgia Hotel and the two are starting to look the same.
The good news is, you don’t have to “get over” anything. All the good things, the happy memories, the moments of warmth you experienced, you get to keep those. You get to keep the sadness, too. The sadness is important! It informs us, and you know what? Sometimes it brings complex pleasures of its own.
But I hope that, moving forward, you can recognize these feelings for a romanticized past are no substitute for the present. You have a life to live, after all.
Con mucho amor,