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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

On Bittersweet Memories

Surveying bits of our past – perhaps while in the bath, on a walk, or a flight – we may come across a particular type of memory colloquially known as ‘bittersweet’.

We might remember afternoons we used to spend, when we were little, with our grandmother. Together we’d do a bit of weeding in her tiny garden, then we’d make lunch and play cards. Sometimes she showed us her old photographs of her own distant childhood. We enjoyed those times very much – but the memory of them is mixed up with the knowledge of what happened later. In adolescence, we pushed away from her, we almost never visited – and she died before we’d found our adult selves. She never got to know about the love we now feel for her. We wince at our recollections.

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Or perhaps we remember being fifteen and in love for the first time. The object of our affection was just half a year older – which seemed a lot then. We felt such tenderness and respect for them – but, crippled by shyness, never said anything. There was one ambiguous moment, at dusk, by the river. Then it passed. Recently we heard they had a child and moved north. We wonder, with pain, if we could ever feel that way about anyone now, with the same unguarded sense of hope and conviction. It seems sadly typical that we let what might have been the best person in the world slip through our fingers.

Or perhaps there was a time when we were studying. We fell in with a lively and fun gang. There’s one photo when we’re by the seaside and we’ve got a huge drunken grin and we’re apparently holding a conversation with a pineapple. It’s a sweet memory, because we are tender towards part of who we were then: we had a sense of fun, we saw existence as an adventure. But, in retrospect, there’s also an awkward sense of missed opportunity. We didn’t realise how soon we’d have to enter a different kind of world; we didn’t study anything like as hard as we could; and looking back we feel that the education on offer wasn’t really what we needed. The memory is cut through with regret and disappointment.

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In themselves, bittersweet memories can seem small and not very important. We perhaps don’t think about them very often; it can feel ticklishly uncomfortable to do so. But they’re quietly pointing us to something major about the human condition. Bittersweet memories force us to acknowledge that the positive in our lives is never far from being devilishly entwined with something more difficult. We feel, in the presence of bittersweet memories, the pain of being flawed, error-prone, time-short and regretful humans.

It would, in a sense, be easier if things were more clear cut; white is simple enough to take and black, too, can be coped with when we know it has to be borne. It’s the grey – with its mercurial admixture of hope and regret – that is so hard for our minds. We long to call some people pure and dismiss others as monstrous, and we do the same with sections of our lives. But to be open to bittersweet memories is to accept ambivalence: a capacity to have two contrasting, opposed emotions about the same thing without disowning either. Both are important, neither can be denied. We’re recognising, rather than denying, the fiendishly mixed character of experience.

We speak of bittersweet memories, but the territory they cover extends over far more than select bits of the past. We should, more rightly, also be ready to speak of, and reconcile ourselves gracefully to, bittersweet marriages, careers, holidays, weekends… Indeed, to the grandest and most necessary concept of all: that we are fated to have bittersweet lives.

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