Past, Present, and Future of the Mind

Let’s play a game. Imagine yourself from 10, 15, or 20 years ago. What do you remember? Do you see that time in your life through rose-colored glasses, or does even thinking about it make you cringe? If you asked other people about that time in your life, how do you think they would answer?

Now let’s flip it around in the other direction. Imagine that 10, 15, or 20 years ago someone asked you what your life was going to be like that many years in the future. What would you have said? Where would you have expected yourself to be? What would your closest friends and family have said?

Here’s the thing: human beings are absolutely awful at both viewing the past and predicting the future because our brains tend to want to glorify or vilify everything. Did you get teased a lot as a kid? Even if it was bad, you probably remember it being a lot worse than it really was because the memories of the teasing overwrite the good times in your mind. . Did you party every night in college and have the time of your life? Even if there were lots of awesome moments your brain probably glazes over all the epic hangovers and panicked all-nighters. As for the future, did you imagine yourself in your perfect job with an awesome house and a cool car, because you knew that you would settle for nothing less? Yeahhhh…how did that work out for you? That’s not to say that your life turned out poorly, but if you were to answer honestly how many of you ended up exactly where you expected to be when you thought about the future a decade ago?

Can you say “Throwback Thursday”?

16-17 years ago (man, that makes me feel old…) I was in the middle of junior high, which for those of you who don’t have the same kind of school system set-up, is the 8th grade, or 9th actual year of public school. That’s me, second from the left in the first row, taking a weird pose because there actually wasn’t enough room for me on the end of the bench and the guy who was taking the photo couldn’t have cared less. I do not recall this time in my life with a great deal of fondness. Junior high is a period of time during which young people start to be real jerks to each other, and I exacerbated that by being an awkward, self-conscious nerd. I was constantly teased and tormented because I was good in school and liked things like Star Wars and anime, and I made myself an even bigger target by neglecting to keep up with my peers…I didn’t wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, or pick up the right habits. I was a loser, and I was convinced that I was both fat and ugly. Seriously, look up at that picture again, and consider the fact that I thought I was fat and ugly. It was an absolutely awful period in my life.

Except, that’s not exactly true; it’s just the way the awkward, self-conscious girl in the back of my mind wants me to remember it. The truth is that I had several good friends, many of them in this picture with me, and we had lots of great times together. I was making excellent grades, developing a life-long love with writing, and I was in the best health of my life. I had an excellent support system in my friends and family, and I had the freedom to choose what clothes I wanted to wear, what music I wanted to listen to, and what habits I wanted to keep. I was a good kid with a good life. It’s just difficult to remember this because time has a way of warping memories in one direction or the other. The teasing and tormenting left a mark on my psyche that persists to this day, always desperately trying to push the good out of the way so that I have to focus on the bad.

Thinking into the future, of course, is a different beast because it doesn’t involve memories, but it’s similar in that we rarely see it the way it is likely to turn out. When a junior high student thinks about her future life and career she doesn’t consider that her hopes and ambitions may have changed, that her priorities may have shifted, or that the opportunities that she took for granted would be available may have never shown up. Back in the days of the above photo, I knew that I was going to be a writer. I’d had other dreams and ambitions up to this point, but right then, right there, I knew for sure that there was no way I was going to be anything else. I was going to write novels, and someone was going to pay me to do it, and I was going to be happy with that. I had no image in my head to represent a husband or children, because those things meant nothing to me at the time. I never would have imagined living anywhere except right in my own hometown, because the concept of not being able to work and live right there was ridiculous. If you had told me that I was going to end up working a job that required me to spend 20 hours on a plane twice a month and work 12-hour days for 14 days straight, I would probably have fallen into a deep depression because that couldn’t have been further from the “reality” that I had in my mind.

And yet, my life has turned out pretty wonderfully. I have a loving husband and a beautiful daughter, and we live in a great house in a quiet part of town. At 30 years old I am very close to having all of my debts gone. My job is not ideal, but it allows me to have extended periods of time off with my family. I’m surrounded by things I love, and I even managed to go ahead and publish a novel as well. Past me may have looked at this picture and seen a hundred things wrong, but future me thinks that things developed pretty well.

And I find that kind of funny, myself. The human mind is a strange thing that likes to warp memories and distort future realities, and only by understanding that can we create a more accurate image in our minds of our own lives.

So look back at the questions above again. How do you remember yourself from the past? Can you admit that your recollection might be a little warped by the extreme good or the extreme bad? What about the present? How different is your current life from the expectations you had in the past? Now take a look at the future. Can you imagine it with clarity and realism, knowing that we can rarely predict such things with accuracy?