Originally published in The Startup.
In my deeply un-scientific experience, people view their pasts in one of four ways: Stories, Numbers, Senses, Indifference.
Story people see their lives as a collection of narratives, or one long narrative.
They see connections, cause and effect, purpose, beginnings, middles, and endings. Story people come across as empathetic and easily pleased. They see beauty in strange elements of experiences.
The missed train, seedy bar with sticky tables, bitter coffee, achy morning after a party, or fox on a street corner are all gifts if they make the Story work.
These are the people who turn their lives into writing, music, films, art, talks, whatever. Not all make creative work, but at least they tell funny, offbeat anecdotes over drinks.
Numbers people see their lives in the concrete, the tangible, the measurable.
They remember the specifics: dates, times, distances, places, names. Numbers people like to measure experiences against other experiences. Or against their idea of perfect form. Or alongside an internal checklist.
They’re drawn to the formulaic, to the inherent logic of treating experiences like stepping stones, to self-quantification.
In conversation, they can come across as distractible. Yet they like analysing other people to fathom them out and fit them into categories.
Senses people see their lives in a freeze frame way. Colours, textures, scents, light, flavours, shapes, at one moment.
They’re drawn back to the past when something hits them in the way another experience did.
The light on a brick wall takes them to a holiday in Greece. The smell of tea and biscuits transports them to their grandmother’s living room. The sound of marker on a whiteboard moves them to a classroom.
Sensory people can seem mindful. They like to stop, to pause and feel the rain on their skin, to shut their eyes to hear the music in a club, to pause and inhale the air wafting from a bakery, or the texture of someone else’s leather jacket. You’ll often see them block out one sense so they can absorb another. They’ll shut their eyes or stop talking to cement the memory.
But then some people are Indifferent.
They treat their past, anything before now as something of little consequence. It’s not shame or embarrassment, more disinterest. Try to draw links between who they were and who they are and you’ll get a blank look.
You know those people who own a dog or cat and don’t engage with it? They’ll feed it and care for it, pet it if it demands attention for long enough, but that’s it? That’s how Indifferent people view their pasts. They can come across as highly ambitious and future-focused.
Nostalgia, as we all know, is a dirty liar.
On some level, each approach is about trying to control the past. Our memories are twisted and warped, blunted and blurred by the passing of time. Mangled and warped by our own confusion.
And at some point, we all recognise what Conor Oberst described as the shackles of language and measurable time. We’re all confined within the passage of time, with the blunt tool of language to define our experience.
Some of us mould it into a logical arc, some measure it, some absorb it, some of us trample it underfoot with a thoroughness that belies the effort involved.
I’ve lived in Story mode for as long as I can remember — but you already guessed that. Most people who write do.
Blame it on my obsessive childhood reading habit and tendency to delve so deep into fiction I struggled to reconnect with reality.
Story mode makes you recklessly curious. You do things less out of a desire to do that particular thing and more out of a need to to know what it’s like.
Not for the satisfaction of telling others, but the joy of constructing a narrative.
It drives me to follow whims because they make a good Story: take the wrong train on purpose, talk to strangers, go to bars alone, visit weird places, travel abroad alone, stay up to see the sunrise, take friends to open spaces, say yes at random, grieve hard and love without logic or depth.
It means a fondness for: notebooks, tattoos, scars, film photographs, asking people to do a drawing for me, live music, coincidences, marginalia, moving, revisiting places, standing in the rain, acts of hopeless romanticism, graffiti, psychoanalysis literature (entirely aware it’s pseudoscience), hometowns, long roads, road trips, streetlights reflected in puddles, attaching undue sentimentality to objects.
But I can’t do Numbers. Ask for anything concrete and I flounder, forgetting how old I was, the month, the time, the place, names even. It feels unimportant somehow. I baulk at labels, refuse to pigeonhole, get evasive on details if they’re not part of the narrative.
I attach disproportionate value to certain experiences . But that value interconnects with a song, book, film, music, or piece of art in the same way banknotes were pegged to gold. Linking them with something valuable gives them value, but only as long as I don’t change my mind about it.
If I stop liking the associated piece of culture, the memory crumbles. I realise that breaking up with someone, crying, at a bus stop in the rain was just cold and awkward, for instance. Or that getting chased with a penknife by a guy with a motorbike after I threw ketchup at him was just scary. Not the same guy, by the way.
But the real point here isn’t about categorising people. It’s another reminder that perception is everything.
Our experiences are a mirror that reflects back who we are. They’re malleable to the point of almost being ludicrous.
Whenever I reflect on a shared experience with someone who views the past in a different way, this becomes painfully apparent. Numbers people dispute or recant the details. Sensory people fixate on an image. Indifferent people change the subject. Those are the moment when it’s clear how far apart our maps of the past are.
Every person we date, every friend we hang out with, every coworker we agree or disagree with, every stranger we briefly encounter, every fight, every burst of laughter, every gathering, every event, place we go, song we hear, book we read, film we watch, picture we gaze at, stairs we climb, place we sleep: it’s just a reflection. It shows us more about ourselves than anything else.
It’s hard to admit we’re all walking around with mirrored glasses, staring at ourselves at every turn. You never get to escape yourself. I’ve tried. We’ve all tried.
We’ve all made vague stabs at shirking off our distorted perspectives and seeing the world clearly. Some people get drunk, some meditate, some go to the rainforest and puke their brains out on ayahuasca, some film everything, some map out their predictable irrationalities, some strip out the emotions.
It never works.
When I wrote about self-acceptance, I pointed out the inevitable reality that once you understand you can never escape yourself, you have no choice but to accept. The same goes for our experiences — it’s far easier to accept them if we recognise the futility of trying to see them in an objective, accurate way.