Why should we travel back, who’ve come so far—
We know who we are.
How can we be the same
As those quaint ancestors we have left behind, who share our name—
( by A. E. Stallings, “Written on the eve of my 20th high school reunion, which I was not able to attend”, In: Poetry, 2008)
It begins with a photograph, one of the few from my childhood I have, nearly all others destroyed when my parents’ home, the one I grew up in, went up in flames many years ago. In it, we are in his mother’s living room, a drawing of the famous “End of the Trail” sculpture by James Earle Fraser, hangs on the wall behind. I stand by my father, now seeing the resemblance between us—his high forehead, the set of his mouth and narrow face. I was four, not yet in kindergarten. My toddler sister stands in front of me, wide-eyed and inquisitive, a mop of curly dark hair framing her face, but I stand back, close to my father, shy and somber. My hair is neatly braided, tied with large bows, and I’m wearing my favorite Mary Jane shoes with white socks, the straps buckled around my ankles. I stare at the camera, unsmiling. My discomfort with the camera will last all my life, as will the shyness, which I will work hard to overcome in my adult years. If I could, now speak to that four year old girl, what wisdom might I have to offer to her? What care? What encouragement?
One of the recent exercises I offered in my writing groups these past weeks was the task of looking back at their younger selves, imagining who they were then—what dreams, fears, and hopes they might have had at a much younger age. I ask the group members to imagine themselves at a younger age, remembering an old photograph of themselves, or, if writing alone, to choose a photo of one’s self at a much younger age. Then I introduce the prompt by saying something like, “Study the photograph or take time with that image of the younger you in your mind, noticing all the details: stance, facial expression, eyes, age, clothing, setting, all the details you can take in. Now, think about who you are now, what you’ve experienced in your life thus far, and knowing what you have experienced and lived as of now,, what would you say to that younger self? What advice would you give the younger you?”
Interestingly, a similar question was at the heart of two studies reported in The Scientific American in 2019, Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, of Clemson University, asked more than 400 individuals about the advice they’d offer to their younger selves. They also asked if there had been a pivotal event in the respondents’ lives that influenced their responses. The majority of answers people gave fell within the categories of relationships, education, and advice do with the self, for example, “believe in yourself.” Other categories reported included money, health, goals, and addiction. Not surprisingly, peoples’ advice often reflected missed opportunities and situations that they could not now change. But some other responses included reflection on circumstances where “corrective action” could still be taken if one was motivated to change, for example, “finish school,” or “drink less and run more.”
For many, their advice to their younger selves related to a positive or negative pivotal event in their lives, most often occurring in the teens, early 20s or 30s. For some, there were regrets expressed in the reminiscing, but the authors wisely remarked that although advice may offer advice to your younger self, it doesn’t mean you must live with regret. Some of that advice may well be useful to your present self. Besides, the practice of occasionally reflecting on your past and your experiences may also inform your present and the ways in which you want to change or live your life going forward.
I return to study the photograph of my four year old self again. I still remember the events of that day; I feel tenderness toward that serious little girl in the photograph because she’d accidentally witnessed an argument between her mother and her beloved grandmother in the kitchen. There was a kind of anger between them I hadn’t seen before, and I was confused. Why were they shouting at one another? How had my petite grandmother had the strength to shove my sturdy mother backwards? What had made them so very angry at one another? How could I love them both at the same time? There is much I would say now, these many years later, to that confused little four-year-old girl.
Looking back may bring up old unresolved feelings or emotions, but there is a plus side too. In doing so, we can learn from the past and how it can inform our present, even our future intentions. Looking back can give us an opportunity to take stock of past experiences and life choices and learn from them. It also reminds us and helps us see of how far we’ve come, and appreciate the life we have. As Derek Walcott expressed so beautifully in his poem, “Love after Love,”
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome…
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
(In: Collected Poems, 1948-1984)
Try writing to that younger self. Begin with a photograph of yourself at a younger age. Examine the younger self who looks back at you. Study it, noticing not only the features, look in the eyes, the facial expression, your stance. Take time to remember who you were then, your hopes, dreams, fears, sorrows, and questions.
- How would you describe the person you’ve become from the one you were then?
- What was it like to be you then?
- What hopes and dreams did you have?
- What desires? What worries?
- What advice, what words do you want to offer to that younger self.
- What, in your life now, do you want to change?
Remember, looking back at your past, your younger self, can be more than a passing reminiscence. Reflecting on who you were then, who you’ve become, can help you feel gratitude for your life but also clarify how the way you want to live going forward and things you want to achieve or change as your life continues.