A Day in the Wayback Machine

Boop! The email that appears in your in-box activates brain synapses you thought had rusted shut.

It’s from an old university friend you haven’t seen in decades. She found you online and, on an impulse, reached out. Turns out she’s coming through your town next month and wondering if you’re free to meet.

Are you? Can you spare a day to play hooky and hop in the Wayback Machine?

In our culture, there’s a “never look back” bias. If that glance in the rear-view mirror can’t be put to productive use navigating the road ahead — if what’s being proposed here is simply to … shoot the breeze — well, that kind of wallow-y and self-indulgent personal reflection is hard to justify. It’s okay in very brief doses, but wasteful in anything beyond a quick coffee or catch-up phone call. (That’s why high-school reunions are so divisive. Those who organize them, and are eager attend them, tend to be the ones who were the insiders back then; for them, returning to the good old days is a welcome tummy rub. An escape, perhaps, from the dis-empowering decades that followed.)

But I think there’s a strong case to be made for a “Let’s Go Back” day. Twenty four hours spent re-connecting with an old pal you were in the trenches with — whatever, for you, was the wider context of the war.

In his essay collection You’re Doing Great, and other reasons to stay alive, the comedian Tom Papa writes about a boon companion from his college days named Dave. Tom’s college experience would have been unthinkable without Dave. They co-directed that chapter of their lives. To spend a day with Dave today, re-living their shenanigans, would be absolute gold to Tom. What he wouldn’t give for a day like that. To see Dave again. To look into that age-salted face and see the younger man he used to ride with. But Tom can’t have that day, because Dave died a couple of years after college. So Tom does the next best thing: he writes about Dave. And just chomping into that madeleine, transporting himself back there, into the company of Dave, proves a tonic. (The whole book, I should say, is a cookie infused with the almond paste of gratitude. There are two ways to live, he seems to be saying. You can have what you want, or you can want what you have. The second way is better.)

Social scientists call this “positive reminiscence.” Every event in your life is like wood that heats you three times: once when you look forward to it, a second time as you experience it, and a third time when you reflect back on it. It’s that third burn that’s often the richest. Because reminiscence is a fire that potentially heats many more people than just you.

In a TEDX talk, the psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener spins an incongruous tale from his days in grad school. He was conducting “happiness” research in the slums of Calcutta. Amid the squalor he encounters a 10-year-old boy who is not unhappy, and actually has a few things in his life that make him very happy. One is running. The boy, by his own admission, is fast. “Do you think you’re faster than … me?” Robert asks him. The gauntlet is down. A race is arranged. Much of the village turns out to see the little local hero take on the big fancy researcher guy from America. As Robert unspools the tale of what happened (you can guess, but check it out), everyone in the auditorium is right back there, trackside, at what was no doubt a defining instant in that young man’s life. It’s a memory that gets better and better for the psychologist, too, every time he retells it. That is the compound interest of nostalgia.

“When life rewards you with an occasional pleasant moment you should take it, and enjoy it,” Robert says. “That moment will recede into the present and then slip into the past where it will become part of your stable of memories, for you to pull up and experience again and again.”

So if you decide to do a Wayback Day of your own, there are two ways to go. The first is an exercise of sympathetic imagination. With everything that is in you you simply bring back your father, or your pal Dave, or that lionhearted Indian kid you happened to cross paths with, whose promise was extinguished by his circumstances.

But if that old friend or acquaintance is still alive, then you just got a gift. You can say yes to that e-mail invitation out of the blue, shelve the work you’d planned to do and just … hang with this person. Realistically, it may be the last time you’ll ever see them. Your job today is to appreciate the heck out of them. And that time you shared, in the brief prelude to infinity.

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