“What you are is what you have been.
What you’ll be is what you do now.”
I recently spent some time with an old friend. Since we hadn’t seen each other in many years, we spent some quality time catching up with each other’s lives. We shared personal stories, which naturally prompted us to share photos. However, as we were pouring through some of her family photos, I couldn’t help but notice that she was in very few of them, and of the few she was in, she looked sort of . . . well, miserable.
She seemed to purposely position herself behind others, off to the side, or simply was absent. As we looked at the photos, I would naturally ask about the circumstances surrounding the photos, questioning who was in the photos, where they were, etc. As she described the photos, she tended to refer to herself in light of whatever negative thing was going on in her life at the time. She would say things like:
“That was the summer when I broke up with George.”
“Oh, that was when I put on 20 pounds – I looked like a cow.”
“I didn’t want to do my hair that day, so that’s why I was wearing a hat.”
“I left the picnic early because my sister pissed me off.”
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. I heard more about her negatively associated memories than I did commentary on the activities themselves!
This prompted me to think about the way we chronicle our lives. My friend’s life was chronicled by negative events – and her photos were there as permanent reminders. Then I thought about my own photo albums. What do I see when I view my pictorial past? What memories stand out the most? Am I the self I would like to see reflected in photos?
Something I often discuss in my writings is that we – ourselves – color the canvas of our lives. The canvas can become colorful, stark, or gloomy; it really depends on the content we supply.
My friend’s memories tend to be slanted toward negative experiences. It was as if she was merely “inserted” into the celebratory backdrops of the photos, but not really a part of them. Now when she looks at those images, instead of remembering the reasons for gathering and celebration, she recalls whatever negative experience she was going through at the time – and there seemed to be a lot of them.
Here is something important to consider: If today were our last day on earth, our lives would be defined in retrospect from our recollections of the time we’ve spent here – equivalent to an ultimate photo album. So the question is, are we reflecting the self we would like to reflect upon?
Becoming the self we would love to see in photos is not about vanity. It’s about being able to reflect inner satisfaction and joy. One way to do this is by increasing our levels of happiness so that no matter when a photo is taken, we will be photo ready. I’m not suggesting that we diminish our existential concerns to simply being ready for pictures – I am suggesting that we find ways to have more happy days so that we can increase the probability of a random snapshot capturing an authentically positive day in our lives.
In light of my friend’s story, consider the following suggestions:
Don’t extend the past into the future
Why? Aside from the fact that we can’t change the past, continuing to ruminate over a negative experience actually extends the pain of that experience. Before you know it, we’ve lost an entire year of happiness due to undue focus on a past event.
In reference to my friend’s experience, the ending of a romantic relationship does not have to evolve into a permanent sticking point. Therefore, instead of continuing to focusing on pain or failure, learn to extract a life lesson – and then let it go.
Don’t allow small things to disrupt a positive flow
Or as Richard Carlson said, don’t sweat the small stuff. When minor disturbances occur, keep them in perspective and don’t allow them to cast a shadow over the bigger picture.
Celebrate and chronicle milestones
Studies of depression have revealed that people with a depressed or pessimistic outlook tend to diminish their successes and magnify failures and inadequacies. Therefore, I believe it is crucial to assign importance to our “special days” and achievements.
Just like the mile markers we see on the highway, personal milestones serve as important markers in our lives. These markers can measure advancement, goal attainment, personal achievements, or important events. Whether it be a milestone birthday or attainment of a diploma, acknowledging milestones adds a layer of positivity in our lives by magnifying those positive events.
If we allow these events to pass without acknowledgement, our recollections can become skewed in a direction that gives too much weight to negative events. Celebration increases the positive emotions associated with these events, which serves as a way to burn these events into our memories.
Become more mindfully aware
When we replace mindlessness with mindfulness, we become more aware and appreciative of both the things we do and of the world around us. To truly enjoy a meal may sound like a small suggestion. But when you consider the number of meals we mindlessly eat on the go, it is easy to see the number of forgone opportunities for us to take a break from everyday stress to actually enjoy the moments of taste and nourishment.
Mindfulness narrows our focus to the moment we are presently experiencing. Using the example of my friend, mindful awareness would have opened her senses to enjoy not only the time spent with her family, but all the things surrounding those events: nature, fresh air, good food, connection, relaxation, etc.
Take better care of yourself
In addition to the items above, I think it is most important that we acknowledge the imperative for self-care. When we feel bad (depressed), we can often neglect the extra effort it takes to fully care for ourselves. The same is true when we live stressful and busy lives – when we place more importance on the business of living, self-nurturing is often placed at the bottom of our lists. In both cases, we should remain committed to personal grooming, healthy diet practices, exercise, rest/relaxation, and general self-nurturing.
All we ever have is the present moment, which is great because the present is where all of our changes occur. We can begin living now in a way that not only improves our future, but in the present we can improve what is destined to become the recollections – snapshots – of our future past.
What do you see in the retrospective view of your life? If you were to take a snapshot right now, what would you reflect?