Unfashionable Nonsense: Hindsight and the Importance of Being Earnestly Delusional About the Past

Opinion by and
May 10, 2010, 12:34 a.m.

Unfashionable Nonsense: Hindsight and the Importance of Being Earnestly Delusional About the Past

We’ve all been there–or at least nearby, in the area code. At the end of a, well, at the end of an “anything”–a class, a project, a relationship, a dirt biking tour of Lake Lag during the rainy season–when all is said and done, we tally up the mistakes we made. Should have paid for a map, rather than winging it and ending up paying an extra 20 dollars in gas and 40 minutes in sweet, sweet time. Should have drank more water. Shouldn’t have eaten the fried egg and bacon pizza all in one sitting. Should have brought more tampons. Should have checked if the participle is “drank” or “drunken” before sending in to be published. But, alas, we tell ourselves, es muss sein, for only hindsight is 20-20.

Well, I hate clichés, and, on top of that, I’m calling B.S. on this one. If hindsight is 20-20, it’s only through some thick, shatterproof, rose-colored bifocals.

Sure, we can look back and decide we should have picked door number three rather than door number two, or forked left rather than barreling along straight, but that only really makes any sense in some abstract universe devoid of consequence. So, you could have turned into the CD section at Target rather than running into that annoying kid from high school you only saw because you went into the electronics section first. For all you know, there was a starving komodo dragon waiting for you in between the clearance NOW albums and Carrie Underwood’s latest. Or, less dramatically, perhaps a best-friend-turned-frenemy was lurking there. The only reason you think your choice was particularly bad is because you don’t know how bad those other ones could have been. And, while it might sometimes be true that we hate the devil we don’t know more than the one we do, this applies if and only if we think there’s a devil to be found in the first place. We glamorize the “could have been,” with all its potential and without any known repercussions, over the “really was.” In hindsight, sure, we see our options, but not in their entirety.

That’s not to say you can’t ever look back and think you made the wrong choice. It’s just that you have a pretty limited set of information: the same choices, and only one path taken.

And hindsight gets worse over time. When I think about Freshman Orientation, for instance, I think about all the excitement surrounding meeting new people and finding my way around a new place. It’s hard to not look back with a smile and think that only now do I know how lucky I was, and how that girl I met across the hall would become one of my best friends, and how signing up for this class or that one changed my whole conception of life. But I’m not looking at the picture very well if that’s all I see–I’m missing the part where I didn’t know a damn soul and missed my family and was beginning to suspect it was going to be a long year of disappointment with dorm food. It’s for our own sanity that we manage to excise past stress from our memories–the present stresses are about enough–but it’s also just not true that they were never there. It’s only when some pack of overdressed freshmen leaving Donner asks you where “Kappa Alpha” is that you remember that once upon a time you, too, had to be an awkward turtle dog paddling through a sea of unfamiliar faces.

Memory is a beautiful thing, and beautiful things tend to have a bit of accompanying artifice to boost their natural aesthetic content. Hindsight isn’t 20-20. In fact, thank God it’s not.

Emily is currently making memories to manipulate into a fantastic “college was the greatest time of my life” anecdote for the grandchildren. Tag yourself in them by contacting [email protected].

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