If as baby boomers we have the luxury of anything at all, it is the luxury of reflection. That’s the message in this piece from Peter Gelfan of New York City. What he says he has learned about is, Living Life Forwards but Understanding it Backwards. But it took some time. A lot of it.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” When we baby boomers were young, this was simple. We didn’t yet have much of a life to understand, and we were too busy living it forwards.
Now, at our age, it becomes a conundrum. We reflect and try to make sense of our lives, we contemplate paths taken or not, and we generate trees of branching alternate lives with a what-if at every fork. Yet we don’t want to turn away from the present, sink back into the past, search for meaning, and try to survive on nostalgia. We know that even as we struggle to understand life backwards, we have to keep living it forwards.
There’s also a second conundrum here. Remembering a life doesn’t necessarily add up to understanding it. Our reminiscences are often served up with generous portions of self-congratulation, regret, justification, and rationalization, all of which tend to obscure any new, useful, and even transformative view of life and of ourselves. I learned this backwards in a sort of forwards way.
When I was 20, I pulled up stakes from a fairly normal American college-boy life to hitchhike around Europe, North Africa, and Asia, sometimes lingering awhile, often soon moving on. At the time, I figured it all meant something but that I wouldn’t know what that was until it all came together in a great epiphany… which never happened. After a few years, I came back to the States, and life fell into a groove.
Then, one evening when I was about 40, a memory struck me of a surreal experience I’d had in Istanbul half a lifetime earlier. I started writing it down, read the first few sentences, and thought, I can say this better. As I worked to do so, other vivid memories swam into view. I wrote them, polished them, and wrote more. After a couple of years, I had a manuscript. I sent it off to agents. Those who bothered to answer each had similar comments: “Wonderful material, terrific stuff, but where’s the story?” I had done just fine at remembering backwards but had come to no understanding.
And then, at some point in my 60s, I unearthed the old manuscript. As I leafed through the ancient episodes, they began to fit together with subsequent and even recent events. Meanings emerged where before there had been none. They’d needed the context, unbeknownst to me until now, of the ramifications of those early experiences. Where was that story the agents had wanted? When they’d asked for it, it hadn’t yet been lived. Now, perhaps it had. I went back to work on the manuscript.
In February this year, it was published as Monkey Temple. Not so oddly, the novel tells the story of a couple of aging hippies who set out to understand their dwindling lives by living them forward with gusto.
To end with a complementary Kierkegaard quote: “Death cannot explain itself… the observer must explain it to himself.”
You can buy Peter’s book, Monkey Temple, here.