As it often does when I am moving in some way, my mind wandered when I was walking home from my son’s basketball game a couple weeks ago. I don’t recall the specific stream of consciousness that led me to the thought that it often seems like I have lived several different lives. As that thought occurred to me, I wondered if I was the only one who often feels that way and if most people experience life as one coherent path.
I find that it is often easier not to allow my thoughts to linger too long on past phases of life. Pain, disappointment, shame and regret stain some of those memories. There is happiness, too, but when I think about life this way—in compartmentalized lives—the negative emotions are the ones that push my thoughts quickly from one to the next.
Anatole France explained this phenomenon well. “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”
Reading his words, I realized that at least some other people must feel the same way.
For me, the melancholy is not nostalgia or wanting to “go back” to some previous stage of life, although there may be certain individuals or feelings that I miss.
It is more that I have needed to let go of a phase—to die to one life—in order to move into the next. Frequently, the past lives that I tend to push out of my mind are those that ended with at least some degree of involuntariness—deaths of animals and humans I loved, disappointments in jobs, hard decisions that had to be made because of life circumstances.
Sometimes I have died so completely to a life that, as far as I know, people who have more recently come into my life have no knowledge of something that once may have been a huge aspect of my identity or fact of my life. Often, that is because I want it that way. It is easier than getting into details of the past and less painful than bringing up a topic that still has a lot of heartache around it.
I wonder—does this make me less than honest? Or does it mean that I am living in the present? Is it healthy to die to the past lives, or is it just a way of repressing pain and other negative feelings? Maybe it is a little bit of all these things, and the fact is that we are so overloaded with information in the present that there is rarely room for ventures back in time.
There is a ritual in the Unitarian Universalist tradition (and some others) called the Burning Bowl Ceremony. It is usually done at the beginning of a new year, but my son and I performed our own ceremony at the 2015 winter solstice. In a Burning Bowl ceremony, people write down things they would like to leave behind, place them in a bowl and burn them as a symbolic release of habits, relationships, ideas, problems, worries and other things that may be dragging them down. I certainly haven’t done that for every phase in my life, but in our 2015 ceremony, I included generic categories of shame and regret because I had felt myself too often dwelling there in the past year. It felt cleansing and has been largely effective.
Maybe that is why I am noticing the phenomenon described by Anatole France more acutely than I have in the past. Maybe the release of certain “lives” is more complete and conscious than it has been in the past.
I think it is sometimes necessary to shed some excess baggage in order to move forward to the next phase. Maybe this is intrapersonal evolution, although not all changes feel that way in the moment. Perhaps they are all part of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth that is part of gaining wisdom, although it sometimes feels more like cynicism, I notice.
In any case, France’s words resonated with me and validated the ideas that had been going through my head.
I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s words from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:
“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”
Maybe that is what it is all about—having the resilience to move with some grace from one phase of life to the next, and the only way to do that is to die to one life, to put down the baggage that adds unnecessary weight.
Maybe those lives have already done their work to shape us. I believe we retain the growth. Even if our minds don’t go back, the changes that those lives and even the loss of those lives effected in us are part of us now and forever, part of that journey that Maya Angelou recognized as an indelible aspect of her identity.
Writing about this does induce—or maybe arise from—a sense of melancholy. Again, it is not nostalgia, not a desire to return, but a recognition of having come through an important leg of the lifelong journey—like turning out of a long stretch of headwind on the bike. It may have worn us out in the short term, but in the long run, we will grow from it.
Just as important as moving forward on our journeys without carrying undue burdens from the past are the people, activities and values that have seen us through many or all of the phases of our lives. Those are the threads that connect all the different lives—the ones that have died, the one we are currently living and the ones that we will live in the future. They are the constants, integral to our identities.
Cycling has been a constant for me. Although I didn’t start cycling seriously and passionately until I was 28, the avocation became so much more and attached itself to my personal value system. The attachment has grown tighter—indeed has been a lifeline—as I have lost dogs, people, career paths, identities, dreams. I am grateful that, while I can let go of what weighs me down, I have aspects of my life that allow me to continue to find my way and remember who I am at my core as I push forward.
I think France and Angelou understood that the journey is all about learning what we need to learn in a phase of life, dying to it when circumstances dictate and holding tightly to the threads that form the lifeline to connect one life to the next. Recognizing that the lifeline is there even alleviates some of the melancholy associated with the serial dying that we must do in order to keep on living.