I’ve been confronted with a lot of “moving on” lately. It’s the hallmark of changing seasons in the course of life that we’re expected to do this. We’re expected to transition effortlessly and smoothly from one stage to another, to leave the past behind and keep churning forward in the pursuit of greener grass, the times of our lives, and the supposed wonders of the future that lie ahead. Even we ourselves imagine that it won’t be so difficult to do.
But it’s not easy. And I’m tired of feeling like it’s supposed to.
Because “moving on” doesn’t just mean packing up your things, selling the furniture that you can’t bring with you, and heading to another place, another time, another destiny. It’s also about delicately wrapping the past up into a little bag, one that you carry over your shoulder like would a cartoon hobo. It’s about not letting the beautiful things shatter or crack or otherwise get damaged as you begin your journey. It’s about leaving behind the ghosts of the past so they can’t haunt you anymore, or as much. It’s about throwing out the toxic things that you know aren’t good for you, but subconsciously will seek out in the next destination. It’s about finally getting around to those things you meant to do. And it’s about cultivating a new version of yourself.
But what does that even mean? It’s easy enough to say that these are the elements of “moving on” but then actually putting them into practice becomes even worse.
Looking at the past is always hard, but it especially becomes hard when you begin to feel the anxiety of potentially sabotaging your future life. Because we know ourselves better than we often want to admit. We know we will keep getting hurt, that we will hurt others too, that we will disappoint, that we will be disappointed, that we will let our emotions get the better of us, and that we will fail to often understand the complex emotions of others.
And confronting these demons is hard. With every picture you find in a frame, the memories will come back. Maybe the former friend that betrayed you shows up in a note you scribed to yourself and buried in a drawer in your desk absentmindedly. Maybe the friend you hurt once wrote you a beautiful birthday card and you found it in the box of mementos you keep. Maybe you find the love poems you wrote to the special someone you pined for with all your heart, silently, without any success.
Or maybe you run into former friends in your last few days, and the regrets flood you like a storm surge. The words left unspoken haunt you, as do the unuttered apologies and the unexpressed pains of forgiveness. Is it wise to even relitigate the past? Is it wise to reawaken that pain? Or do you just take the polite hugs and respectful well-wishes they impart, at this point more an exercise in civility than any signal of genuine care or sympathy? They seemed to have moved on, why haven’t we? Brave face, brave face, brave face, we tell ourselves.
And then exes. The sting of those exes who you became friends with shortly after all romantic tensions ended between you. You thought you moved on and stopped seeing that person with rose-tinted glasses, but no, you never quite did. You just resolved to express your love for that person through other means. Especially if you never dated someone else afterward, you just suppressed those feelings.
I genuinely feel pity for those exes, because they just expected that you and I and the rest of us had moved on fully. They didn’t know we were hurting the whole time. They didn’t know the hurt that they kept causing us. And often, they’re the ones that will rub salt into the open wounds we have now. They write us long messages thanking us for constantly supporting them and being “rocks” or “anchors” and we feel vindicated. Until they forget about us the next day and never bother to check up on us anymore and we feel the shame of being “lead on” and begin to resent them all over again, just like we did in the heat of breakup, and we realize how circular our emotions truly were.
And then your friends and mentors and colleagues who shower you with love and praise in those final days. They make you feel the best and the worst all at once. They remind you of how strong you are, of how great you can be, and of what you still have to accomplish. Their gifts are thoughtful, full of compassion, and really treasures you’ll appreciate forever.
But then you realize that you kinda don’t want to leave. You want to be trapped in amber at this moment. You want for your existence to continue on horizontally, without changes. You have so many roots where you are now, why leave? Why not just keep living life where you are? Why leave behind the friends you love, the colleagues you learn from, and the mentors you admire? Why not just stay and stop moving on, eventually you have to settle, so why not just do it now?
And why haven’t we moved on yet? Why are we letting ourselves be consumed by the guilt of inadequacy? Why are we constantly letting our minds drift into the depths of what is now history? Why are we letting nostalgia get the better of us?
And then I’m reminded of this line that spoke to me in a book I read just over a month ago. “The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution but find none.”
Joan Didion wrote that in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Talking about the process of grieving her husband following his unexpected death, she reflects on the process of moving on from tragedy, but her words might as well speak to our entire experience moving on from anything. Because “moving on” is the biggest lie ever created.
Your demons will haunt you forever. You will feel the pangs of regret and nostalgia as you fold your clothes into your suitcases. You will revisit your past expectations of the future as you put bedsheets over the furniture, as you put your picture frames in cardboard boxes you stuff up in your attic or basement or storage unit, as the yearbooks and textbooks and picture books begin to collect dust on shelves, and as you close the blinds for the very last time. And as it all stacks up in the trunk of a car, or in the corner of a room, or gets lugged onto your plane, you realize that it’s all over, but nothing seems to have changed. Your past is still hanging around.
Good. And it should. And you need to accept that.
The craziness will recede, but not the emotions it caused. It won’t become clearer overnight just because you wish it. And oftentimes there won’t be a resolution. Gatsby, we can’t repeat the past, so of course there won’t be a resolution to all these problems! We can’t get Daisy Buchanan back, we can’t unsay the things we wish we hadn’t said, we can’t go back in time and avoid those people that hurt us, we can’t go back and prevent ourselves from hurting the ones we did.
What can we do instead? Learn from the failures of our past. Cherish the momentary glimpses of beauty that we are exposed to. Appreciate the finer things in life. Resolve to be better than we once were. And above all, never leave a day unseized. And we can only do this by embracing our pasts. By embracing our pains, our traumas, our great sufferings.
You literally can’t move on. You can’t hide from the past. You are your past, your present, and your future. You are your everything and you are your nothing. You are the composite product of so many experiences, woven together into the vibrant tapestry of your existence. So embrace it! You’ll feel it all over again the next time you’re forced to “move on”.