A thought occurred to me while I was driving back from Atlanta late last night. The family had fallen asleep in awkward positions, half-baked attempts at trying to get comfortable in a compact car, leaving me alone with Brian Eno Radio on iTunes and the ever-churning maelstrom that is my self-conscious brain.
When you’re tired and facing miles and miles of poorly-maintained asphalt, you do whatever it takes to keep it together, and in the absence of any preferred stimuli, your thoughts take over. This can be a terrifying experience – especially if you’re victimized by ADD like I am and find yourself haphazardly thinking about that scene with Duane from Annie Hall.
Looking in the rear view mirror, I saw fuzzy balls of indiscernible light appear miles behind me, slowly taking form as drivers closed the gap and passed me. For whatever reason, a few slowed down after flying by and I’d eventually overtake them again. This squirrelly behavior annoys and befuddles me, by the way. Even so, I was intrigued thinking about how they seemed to have arrived from my past, driving the same piece of road I had already put behind me; then into my future, driving the road still ahead of me; and again back into my past, like a waffling time traveler undecided about where and when they belong. I sometimes feel that way, too.
Occasionally I’d have to change lanes and referred to the scattered cars in my rear view for their input about my timing and speed. It hit me on one such occasion that “looking in the rear view” has been a crucial component to the survival and evolution of our species. In order to relate or make sense of what is or will be we frequently need to look back on the details of what was. Past memory is how we determine how to handle present and future experiences: Is this edible? Does it taste good? Will this hurt me? Can it kill me? Is this a friend or foe?
Over time, this capacity developed from a basic survival mechanism into working memory. Our ability to recall and react is fundamentally intrinsic to being human and derived principally from our fear of death, just as referencing the rear view was intended to keep my family safe and sound as I drove them home last night.
It reminded me of Brett’s brilliant piece On Death and Nostalgia, particularly how our experiences tend to focus on what has happened rather than what is happening – “memories, not moments.” A sentimental attachment to the past can be unhealthy, yes, but analyzing the past is vital to how we navigate through life. Whether we’re changing lanes on an old, familiar highway or experiencing a new stretch of pavement, we need the past to move forward.
Attachment, on the other hand, can limit our ability to move forward, even taking the wheel and throwing it into reverse. If you ask me, there’s something about riding shotgun in a driverless car going in reverse that’s a little off-putting.
As the old VW commercials used to remind us, “On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers.” Be a driver . . . and leave it in the rear view.
Drive safe, friends.