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  • jeffreywenhao

The past is more than regrets. The past is also meaning.

The narrative goes - the past can't be changed, but the future is ours to shape. Stop looking back to your past, plan for what you want in the future, and focus on the present to get there.


OK. I don't agree fully. But let me start with a short story.

This acceptance speech popped up on my YouTube feed recently.

As humans, we have the uncanny ability to live in different spheres of time. Even though we are here, right now, our minds can take us elsewhere and make us feel like we are living there. We can:

  • live in the present, and be consciously aware of what is happening: the tiredness from sleeping too little, the contentment that the day had just ended, the dread of the un-replied emails staring at you, the joy of seeing a loved one, or this screen as a means to escape from monotony.

  • live in future, and vividly so. We can imagine ourselves living the lives we hope to be. We can see our faces in the future and we can feel what has yet to happen - sense of anticipation at the airport before we leave on our yet-to-be holiday, the breeze on our face when we get to the holiday destination and how good the food will taste; your anticipated reaction to the surprise gift from a loved one you were anticipating.

  • live in the past, and all the fragments we can recall that made up our lives so far. The regrets of all the things you done. The regrets of all the things you didn't do. The memories of your friends that are still your friends. The memories with former friends.

  • live as someone else, vicariously, fantasizing about being the sports star performing in front of thousands, as that fictional character in that movie or that book, as Christoph Waltz as receives his award.


You wonder what was going through Christoph Waltz's mind the moment his name is announced? There was the emotions of the present: nervy anticipation as he hears Christop.. (Christopher Plummer was also nominated). Then there was the genuine smile when it was confirmed - "Waltz!". There must be the excitement as he walked up on stage, what would he say, and how would the audience react? With his nomination and victory, did Christoph Waltz perhaps ventured into the future? After such a hard slog as a lifetime actor, he finally made his big break in his mid-50s. His talent which went unnoticed for so long is suddenly evident. Is he due for bigger roles in the future? Or did Christoph Waltz think back to Hans Landa, his terrifyingly sinister character in Inglourious Basterds, such a complex role that the director didn't think he could find anyone to play it? Probably, as he replicated his "Uber Bingo" lines from the movie. But most of all, Christoph Waltz did what many of us would do when he won the award. He spent most of his time looking at the past. He spoke about how he thought his acting career was going one way, but this script gave him the chance to go another. He hints that he had changed his way of thinking, in a major manner. He spoke about the different people that helped him along the way, to help "find his place". He recalled the skill of director Quentin Tarantino to navigate the movie in the way he had - surely this was not a spontaneous recollection, but a view that developed through accumulated experience.


And Waltz also showed gratitude, to thank all the people who helped him, even if he had great talents. He appreciated what others had done to help make his success possible. We are the product of our genes. But we are also the product of our experiences. We became the person we are today because of the experiences we have gone through. And often, it is only when we look back that we understand the significance of what happened. At one particular moment, one snapshot of our lives, we often cannot assess the value of the experience we had and the choice we had made. We might have been too young or too absorbed into a moment, but when we look back at all our accumulated experiences, we take a longer lens and we appreciate what has happened better. Perhaps our first road trip could have been planned better, but you will always love it as a virgin experience. Perhaps your first job sucked, but it made you just a little stronger, and helped you when you searched for your second. Perhaps you thought it was ok to miss a couple of outings with friends, until you realised you no longer keep in touch. We are hardly able to make sense of these things as they happen, but it makes more sense when we look back and reflect. Yes, the past can no longer be changed (well objectively not possible, though many of us do alter our memories and interpretations of these memories). But it is only when we look into the past that we know what the fragmented moments of our lives mean. It is only when we look back that our lives carry meaning.


Yes there are moments in our past that are painful. I remember many an insomniac night, lying in bed, when a memory preyed on me, attacked me; it seared a pain so deeply that it felt my heart had a hole burnt through it, that my head was going to erupt in the misery of what could have been better. It felt like regret was chewing me up from the inside out. Those moment are so painful. But I still value them because they are unique to me and my individuality. Only I can understand why these moments are so horrid. Everyone knows pain but only you can understand the context and depths of yours. And while we often want to remember the highs and successes of life, I think the lows and failures are also precious in their own way. They don't just make the good moments better in comparison, but it completes a human experience. Life is much better having gone through the full range of emotions, having swung the pendulum from abject failure to stunning success. A life of just constant joy would be so incomplete in comparison.


Yes, it is important for us to concentrate on what we can change. On the future. On future happiness and successes. But one must have a reason to 'be happy" and to "be successful". One needs a definition for both, unique to oneself. And we can find these all the better because we learn where life has been most meaningful for us in the past. Finally, a look back allows us to develop gratitude. Most things didn't come so easy. And they didn't come just because of our own efforts. Someone, no matter how briefly, lent a hand, believed in us, encouraged us. And we learn when look back to appreciate that good things have also happen to us. Life isn't only about achievement. Achievement has to carry meaning. And meaning comes from life's reflections.

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