Over the years – for one reason or another – I’ve spent a lot of time around people a whole lot closer to death than birth. And it’s not just in Florida’s retirement warehouses. Excuse me, communities.
Whether it’s in the deep south where northern retirees retreat for warm weather so they can sit in frostbite-inducing air conditioning – or in the VFW and American Legion halls of rustbelt cities, you’ll see them. Old guys hanging on to perhaps the only part of their youth – and perhaps their lives – that’s left. While many withdrew from living in the present too many years ago, it’s a lot more obvious when they’re lined up in their wheelchairs in lobbies and sunrooms across the country. You can pick them out. Not from the assorted infirmities they share with others their age, but from their hats, ever-present flags and conversation. Invariably they’ll be wearing a veterans cap or vest of some sort, festooned with all of their medals and ribbons. And the only things they talk about are their military experiences, which may not have been anywhere near combat.
These experiences were the most emotionally-charged parts of their life. And they’ve never moved on. (For some, this may not be possible.) At one point in their lives, they were part of a team. Much like marriage or any other deeply-felt relationship, they saw their self worth fulfilled in cooperation with others. They recognized that their lives were irrevocably intertwined with the lives of others. They’re branded by the intensity of experience. You’ll see the same tribal branding among former athletes and their fans. Many never mature beyond these years, carrying their nostalgia into the halls of business, government and family as they grow older, but not up. For one way too brief moment, they were part of something greater than themselves.
Now they live in communities segregated from the rest of the world by age and income. They’ve exchanged their geographic and physical pasts to become echo chambers for each others’ memories. While they may not intentionally abandon all hope when they go south, they abandon all contact with the opportunity to live in the present, in a world of opportunity, a world where people, environment and events change daily and demand a response in today’s time, not yesterday’s mythos.
There’s nothing wrong with remembering and respecting our past, as long as re-experiencing it doesn’t keep us from living today. Memories bring us perspective and appreciation. But, when they interfere with our ability to create new experiences, to build a foundation for a present and future life, they sacrifice the chance for a new intensity on the altar of the old. We’ve heard about the stages of grief that most of us pass through in bad times. Acceptance allows us to move on. Many of us need to accept and enjoy happiness, no matter what its source, and then move on. It’s impossible to recreate the past in today’s – or tomorrow’s – environment. When we try, we sacrifice reality for old daydreams. Or nightmares.