Why We Reminisce

My uncle (who makes an appearance on this blog so much, I feel like I should give him a royalty, and would, if I got any money for this; I’ve even stopped asking for permission to use his emails) asked me last month why we reminisce:

“Is it because we are fonder of the past than we are of the present?  Is it because we thought those days were happier than today, or tougher than today, or because it gives the reminiscer more credibility?

“Christy asked me once why I took photographs. This was before cell phones. I would buy several roles of slide film at a time, take a whole bunch of shots, take them to the photo shop, then a week later come back and pick them up.  I’m not sure why I took all the shots I did but I think I told Christy that it proved I was there at that particular time and place, not just physically but mentally, artistically, and emotionally.

“That still doesn’t explain to me why I like to reminisce and since I started thinking about it last night I decided I would not reminisce until I figured it out. The one thing I do not want to be is a has-been, someone who lives more in the past than the future.”

Dave & Keith Null

My dad and his little brother, my uncle

Here is my response–three weeks later, I’m sorry to say. I’m also sorry it’s not half as eloquent:

“It took me way too long to respond to this.

I am the same way; I worry that my glasses are too rose colored. I tend to pine for the past; not sure why. And it doesn’t even have to be my own past. As a girl, the Civil War was my favorite thing in the world and I was sure I was born in the wrong century [I’ve since recognized the upside to things like washing machines, antibiotics, and toilets]. I know during the present, I will miss it; when the kids do cute things, I know there will be a point in the future when I cry for these times.

It’s getting worse as I get older, so I’m trying hard to have a more positive outlook and live presently. I’m going to blame my parents for all this.”

As usual, when I began writing this post I didn’t know what I was going to say. As I wrote, I came up with a few thoughts, and I think together they start to answer why we reminisce:

I think life already lived is something like childbirth–you forget the immediacy of the painful and you’re left with the pleasant, the interesting, and the wonderful. Reminiscing about those parts is also, therefore, pleasant.

My grandmother, on the left

My grandmother, on the left

People also generally love tradition–traditions provide comfort and security in the known. Traditions create bonds, shared experiences over and over. Reminiscing is probably a cousin of tradition.

Mostly, though, I think reminiscing is storytelling. It is sharing your story, a story in which you are the main character. It is validating your life, a documentation of sorts, but more than that. And when shared, your story–your life–is passed on. As the tagline above says: “When telling stories we are engaged in a democracy like no other.”  We each have a voice. We are each important. We each were here.

Reminiscing is like writing, like photography. It’s not so much about living in the past as it is about telling your story–sharing it with others so they can laugh, cry, and tell you it’s all going to be okay.

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12 thoughts on “Why We Reminisce

  1. Jessica you have almost explained it perfectly. Reminiscing typically becomes more common as we grow older. We have fond recollections of our most precious moments. We review as we get older and look back at our choices both good and bad. Our reminiscing can contain both pleasure and regret. But as we age we tend to spend time thinking about the legacy we have created. You explained it most eloquently.

  2. Well written, Jessica and a great question! I believe that I reminisce to validate my life, particularly heart warming times spent with my father. It is an opportunity to tell my story and realize that there was a time when I “counted” in his life. Always a bit bittersweet, still the brain and heart seek to make sense of a life. You’ve left me with lots to ponder!
    Sincerely,
    Lynne

    • Thanks so much, Lynne. You bring up a great point–I talked about remembering the good because we forget the bad, but it works the other way around, too; it works to remind us that there was, indeed, good and not only bad.

  3. I really enjoyed this. I too have found more and more the desire to tell stories about my life. I think in telling our stories we are engaged in “meaning-making”. Exploring the meaning of life, and our own life experiences and stories is what we must explore to glean what it’s all about, for us personally, and in general. I think as we age and watch our parents and those we love leave us, we realize that bits and pieces of our personal history and the history of humankind is disappearing, and the only way to give that history a chance to survive us, and pass on that history to others, is through these stories, oral or written. Somehow it seems urgent to do so while we have the time. We are the only ones who can do it, shape the stories of our lives and give them meaning, and pass on to others for whatever value that may afford.

    • I’ve always loved to write, and when I was younger I’d hear people say writing was a way to leave your legacy. It didn’t make sense to me then, but it does now–this need to document, to remember, to pay homage, all the things that things like writing, reminiscing, and photography do. To capture something so it isn’t fleeting. It must be innate in us because we’ve been telling stories for millennia.

  4. Oh, WOW do I love this post. “Reminiscing is storytelling” — yes, I think you artfully articulated why we reminisce. You also hit on a really good point about living in the present/in the moment. I often find myself so torn between picking up the camera vs. experiencing “the event.” In fact, I blogged about it once — and the fact that my desire to “document” really impeded a very special sighting: about 12 coyotes running single-file along the berm above the pecan grove. In my haste to first find the camera, then open it, then begin filming, etc., I missed everything but the “caboose” of the coyote train! It really made me stop and think about BEING PRESENT and living in the moment. Sometimes you just need to do it, I guess. Then you CAN reminisce about the time you saw those dozen coyotes dancing across your property vs. lamenting the fact that you have one lousy photo to show for it!

    • Yes, yes, yes. I have the same problem with my children–my first thought is always, “Document!” I’ve been trying hard lately to enjoy the moment and write it down later.
      I was in Yellowstone a few years ago with my sister, and we were so crazy about taking photo after photo that on the second day, we parked on the side of a road, left our cameras in the car, and sat on a large rock for about 45 minutes, to remind ourselves that we didn’t just want to have a record of our visit but an experience, too. That reminder helped the next day when we got to watch–actually watch–a wolf chase down a gazelle in Lamar Valley. Cannot tell you enough how glad I am I didn’t have a camera in my eye during that.

  5. I think, too, we have more control over the past. No, we can’t CHANGE it – but we can change the way we remember it, or think about it, by putting our own spin on it, as storytellers. A horribly embarrassing moment becomes a joke, or a lesson learned. And the great moments simply ARE fun and pleasurable, to relive over and over again.

  6. As you know, I am the queen of holding on to the past! That’s why you haven’t shaken me as a friend for 30+ years!! I enjoy remembering the good times. I think it’s fun to “relive” those experiences. That’s why we enjoy reunions (or maybe dread them). They bring up the past and you get to tell your stories. This is a great post Jess!!

    • I’ve always loved the past, too, as do most of my family and friends. It’s been interesting being married to my husband, because he’s not as fond of it–he sees reminiscing as somewhat pointless. I see his point, but I also think there’s something wrong with him. 🙂

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