Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 5, 2021

Reconciling the past with the present

By ZUBIA HASAN | February 20, 2021

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How do I stop present cruelty from marring the untouchable beauty of the past?

There is something so romantic about the past. Something so beautiful, so untouchable, so untainted about past memories. They drift into your head like clouds and bring with it fuzzy thoughts of love, maybe a muted pain, perhaps even an enchanted sadness. It really is impossible to think about the past without some or all of these feelings because, as always, the past is gone, not belonging to us but to an approximation, an imitation of thoughts, a re-enactment of memories like a vintage film reel.

But what do you do when the memories of the past clash so horribly with what is in the present? Perhaps the person you are thinking about has seemed to change for the worse. Perhaps the place you are thinking about is no longer there. Perhaps your memories leak into the present tense, halting the future. What do you do then?

The romantic answer would be to do nothing; the past is a separate entity, living and breathing in your mind, sometimes in an angelic sleep, sometimes awakened by the present. The romantic way would be to divide your life neatly into categories — the past and the present. The present has nothing to do with the past and the past certainly does not want to interact with the present.

But is that doable? Sustainable? I once read that romantic really just means not of this world, removed from reality. I love that idea but hate the idea of what is sustainable and doable. The point of life, in my opinion, is to transcend what is and always do what could be — to really live life like a literature novel because literature has never been a depiction of reality but always an exploration of what reality could be. Yes, I like my romantic answer.

But I am tired. The romantic answer is exhausting and the romantic brain is always a tad skeptical. It is hard to see the past and the present as two separate entities. It is hard not to revisit memories, sift through conversations, parse through images to try and connect it to the present. To try and make sense of the present. And I don't know — maybe they are connected, but maybe they are separate because I can certainly imagine that human randomness exceeds even past-present causality.

The non-romantic way would allow memories to leak caustically into the present. It would allow the past to mingle with the now. It would allow them to dance together, in step, in rhythm, pointing fingers at me, laughing at me — why did I not see this person for who they seem to be now? Why did I not see the place for what it was — a place, a temporary way of being and not a permanent attachment in my psyche? Why? It would allow my mind to tell me that those past memories are a lie — that the past from my viewpoint was a diluted, tinted, false version of what really happened. That is destructive. That ruins my perception of what is real. But the romantic answer? That leaves me heart broken.

Maybe there is a middle ground. Maybe there is a way to recognize that while it is true that the person that changed, the place that is now gone did once exist the way you stored them in your mind. That what is real to you may not have been real to others but that does not mean it was any less real. That the past is beautiful and the present is cruel but cruelty cannot trump beauty, at least not fully. There is a way. It is a middle way but it is a way that I have not trod enough. I do not know how to be moderate; I do not know how to be less intense, I do not know how to not be me. A suspended seesaw is foreign to me — I have always preferred to be running on the ground or flying in the air. Maybe now, finally, I will walk. 

Zubia Hasan is a senior from Karachi, Pakistan studying physics. Her column, Trial & Error, explores relationships between people, cities and herself.

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