Monday, 23 March 2009

Seeing a Life Lived Backwards

A friend of mine has a quote from Kierkegaard that attaches itself to all the emails he sends. Although I often skim over any “clever” quote that someone has as their signature, or at the very least read it and roll my eyes, I’ve seen this one so many times now it’s stuck in my mind: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards". I have obviously resigned this little snippet of philosophy to the back of my mind only to find it resurface the other day when I experienced something that made me understand exactly what Kierkegaard meant.

A few days ago, I discovered a useful little guide on how to set up a GMail account so that it can send and receive mails from a hotmail account. On the face of it, this may sound a little pointless, but for me, this was a good idea. I’ve had my hotmail address since I was about 14 but hotmail and I had a little falling out around about the time the spam hit. Although the majority of people know that I never check my hotmail any more, I do still get the occasional thing there so every now and then I do end up checking it, and the experience becomes a little bit like my shopping trips: I know exactly what I want to get so it’s a process of getting in and getting out as soon as possible. GMail on the other hand has a fantastic interface and is able to reasonably differentiate between spam and emails that I would like to read, so combining this with the necessity of the hotmail address is a perfect solution. However, although setting this up was easy enough, it had an unexpected side effect.

Maybe it was what was supposed to happen, maybe it was an option I accidentally checked, or maybe it was just planetary alignment but my GMail account very slowly downloaded every single email from my hotmail account from most recent to most distant. It should also be worth mentioning that apparently, the last time I cleared out my hotmail address was in 2004.

I saw my life for the past four years crawl past me in email form. Backwards.

At first, as they trickled in I just deleted them or archived them without really paying attention. These were things I’d dealt with fairly recently or things that were going on at the moment or had happened in the recent past, but the further it started going back, the more I waited on each item before archiving it. At first, it was reading the subject lines and involuntarily remembering what was going on back then. Then it was re-reading entire conversations that I’d had at certain points. The overall experience was bizarre, because every time you read something from your past, you are faced with the contradiction of knowing how things eventually turned out and remembering how it felt not knowing.

In life, when we look back at the past, we always remember it with a rose tinted view. It’s unavoidable that nostalgia kicks in and makes us remorseful that things had to change and that things aren’t like the way they were in “the good old days”. I’ll frequently look back at my university days and have to remind myself that although there were some really genuinely good moments, there was a lot of waiting around, uncertainty and general melancholy as well. Viewing your life through emails, you see everything and are reminded of everything, bad times and all.

Although there was a fantastic spree of emails between Fien and I when we first met, going back further saw emails on how an ex-girlfriend and I had split up, a little further and there was the dissolution of Salisbury Road, further still a falling out with a good friend and attached to all of this came reminders of what I was and wasn’t doing at the time which drove home the point that “I could have handled things better”. Hindsight is always a glorious thing, and this is what I interpret Kierkegaard to mean by only understanding life backwards. Although it’s good to see that even after some poor moments I’ve still come out of things ok with the help of good and over all understanding friends, for example all of us from Salisbury Road are on good talking terms even if we don’t see each other much any more, it was still a rattling experience.

I have a different friend who always used to keep an extensive diary, every single email and even wrote up texts into a giant excel spreadsheet. I’m not sure if he still does this, but I could never do this. The way I get through life and the way I think you’re supposed to get through life is by moving on and leaving things behind you. Learning from your mistakes is one thing, dwelling on them is another, and recording them so you can dwell on them later is probably somewhere inbetween.

Although this was a morbidly fascinating experience, I don’t want this to happen again any time soon. It’s not just that life has to be lived forward, it’s that it should be lived forward.

Additional Notes:

I say I understand exactly what Kierkegaard meant, but what I really mean is I think I understand. I asked a philosopher friend once if they knew much about Kierkegaard and their response was something along the lines of “Yes. It’s very strange.” As academic analysis goes, that’s remarkably succinct and to the point.

Just on the off chance that the provider of said quote-at-bottom-of-email scenario is reading this, I’m not having a dig at you for quoting something interesting on your emails, just the general mentality of putting a quote as your signature. It so very rarely comes across as anything but pretentious or nauseating. So long as it’s not song lyrics, I suppose we’re ok.

If the only thing you’ve taken from this post is “hey cool, you can do that with GMail?” don’t feel guilty because that’s exactly what I would think. The guide on how to do it can be found here.


Becks said...

This is my favourite post of yours so far. I had a similar experience a month or so back. I just can't think of what logic I was using when I wrote some of them!

David Hing said...

It's why I'm cautious about reading old journal entires from when I used to keep one.

It's also why I will never ever get a tattoo: I may think a design is a good idea now, but in a years time? In ten? anyone with a tattoo of course....!

Becks said...

Yeah that's right, start your backtracking... :p