Do you ever look back and question your middle-school self’s liberal use of Instagram filters? I can’t be the only one who lived 2010–13 in sepia. Be honest with yourself. Go back, open up your account and scroll all the way down. Your high school valedictorian speech? Go further. Braces? Further. Your middle school valedictorian speech? I said further! There you are — gaptoothed and wishing you could shuffle. The picture is really orange, probably dipped in “Toaster” or “Kelvin.” And if your dad went on business trips — or if you wished that your dad went on business trips — you probably used a filter from VSCO. Your color balance is all off. There’s probably a vignette. And God forbid you committed identity theft to download a 99-cent tooth-whitening app. The pictures look ridiculous.
But they also look like middle school.
Think about what that terrible picture of you from the seventh grade dance would look like without a filter, without the sepia, without a dope-ass tilt shift. It just wouldn’t feel the same. We chose to bathe our photos and all that they captured in hues of orange and cyan simply because that’s how we wanted to remember them.
Just as we filter our photos for future retrospection, we retroactively apply filters to our past. Picture yourself at your high school graduation. You were probably all smiles. Those 40 hours a week of studying — just enough. The seven clubs you started — must be a lucky number! Your shortened life span as a result of sleep deprivation during critical years of physical and emotional development — worth it. After all, you got in! There you are, a beautiful package all tied up in a cap-and-gown bow. Now — imagine you didn’t get in. Would the smiles have been the same? Those 40 hours a week of studying — why not 41? Those seven clubs you started — why not eight? Your shortened life span as a result of sleep deprivation during critical years of physical and emotional development — you missed out on teenage love (and there’s no going back)! Like Italo Calvino’s Despina, a city that presented a different face to those who arrived by land versus by sea, the same past — the same process — shows a different face based on how it ended up.
You did the past the only way you knew how, looking forward. But we remember in reverse, and to think of the past as the “pre-present,” that, all along, was just waiting to bear its fruits, is a dangerous trap. By that logic, the present is the “pre-future,” and you’ll just have to wait to make up your mind as to whether you’re happy today until tomorrow.
Getting into Yale, getting a 4.0, getting that perfect job offer, these are not processes. These are products. And while, of course, they are contingent upon the processes that permitted them — you are not a product. It’s easy to draw the lines in the sand, divvy up the eras and milestones and view yourself as Human V2.3 — post beta high-school version, pre-official release — but these checkpoints catch up to us. The fruit of even the healthiest tree will wither in a bad frost, and the “products” we so often assemble our pasts out of dependent on a multitude of factors completely out of our control. As German philosopher Walter Benjamin claimed in a 1936 essay — I will paraphrase — a man who dies at 35 was not always a man who died at 35. Instead, he exists in remembrance always as a man who died at 35. You were not at once a toddler and future Yalie — unless you had a Yale onesie courtesy of grandmamá and grandpapá. You are not at once an undergraduate and future president, future parent or even a future failure.
To look at today through some conjectured wisdom of tomorrow is to deny the essence of the present. And to look at the past through the wisdom of today is to deny that it too was once the present, full of the same uncertainty, the same mistakes as today. This is not to say that we cannot analyze the past, however. To ignore its teaching power would be completely ignorant, and I am all for retrospection. It is a privilege to look back and understand what we did right, what we did wrong and, ultimately, why we did what we did.
Reflection in search of clarity is fundamental to growth. But predatory reflection, looking for any way to blame the process — to blame yourself — when the product didn’t turn out how you wanted, is utterly destructive. Don’t mask your past in the retroactive filters of today’s regrets. Don’t use the back of your eyelids, closed in vindictive retrospection, as mirrors. They’re conical, warped, eye-shaped — they don’t reflect, they refract.
Eric Krebs is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .