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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

On Old Photos of Oneself

To those sensitive to the melancholy nature of experience, looking though an album of old photographs is not an uncomplicated pastime. A few pages in, there we are in a large colour portrait: a smiling five year old, pulling a gap toothed smile, extremely proud of having just completed a drawing of a submarine and some very happy looking fish. We’re wearing our favourite dungarees and our hair is unusually long. We’re also – if we can say it ourselves – very cute.

We may be moved at the sight of this little person but also – probably – somehow deeply saddened as well. How much of life’s suffering this tiny thing didn’t yet know! How much pain they still had ahead of them! They had no clue – that sunny afternoon in the garden of the old house, a few hours before it would have been time for a bowl of animal-shaped pasta and a strawberry yogurt for tea – what fate had in store. How little they could suspect of the divorce, the move to the smaller house, the bullying, the loneliness, the unrequited love, the guilty feelings around sex, the career mishaps, the trouble with the liver, the realities of marriage, the financial anxiety, the romantic betrayals, the tetchiness, the ugliness of age, the persistent anxiety and fear and the troubles of childraising… – just to start a list that is in no way comprehensive or even especially ghastly (it gets much, much worse).

We’re likely to realise, as we take in another shot of us attempting a cartwheel by a forest, that part of what keeps us going is the sheer fact of not knowing. We are kept alive by a brute biological appetite reliant on ignorance. But if we imagine being given the option of magically returning to being five again, knowing what we know now, we would most likely say a firm no. We aren’t actively looking forward to death, we haven’t got plans to end things prematurely, but we couldn’t really bear to have our life again. Too much of our years have been spent in pain and brokenness of one kind or another. There have been a few moments of fun and of achievement but essentially, the picture has been too mixed to warrant another go. It’s a melancholy realisation: without us necessarily being fully aware, we don’t find a great deal of what happens to us tolerable. There are too many days lost to anxiety and aggravation, self-doubt and alarm, loneliness and longing. We hate our lives more than we perhaps usually acknowledge. We want to go back and hug that little child for all the difficulties heading its way. We want to cry at the joyful innocence in a world in which, essentially, no one gives a damn.

Even worse, this retrospective glance makes us question our relationship to the future. Right now, we still retain certain hopes. We may be trying to make a new relationship work or devoting a lot of effort to a professional project. But if the past is any indication, within a decade (if we’re lucky to have it), we’ll be looking back on a photo of today with some of the same emotions as we look back on the five year old version of ourselves. We’ll be seeing someone similarly naive about what is to come, similarly innocent of difficulties, similarly overly excited given what is actually possible, given our nature and the conditions of life. We were not only innocent of the past; we are still fairly innocent about the likely unfolding of the future.

So many of the photos feel bittersweet, that is, not plain dreadful, but invariably tinged with something difficult or shameful. Take a photo of us with our grandmother. We must be around nine. We loved spending time with her, helping her in her garden and laying out our toys in her front room. But we also know that when adolescence came, we stopped going to see her. She seemed embarrassing and we imagined she couldn’t understand much of what we were feeling, though we never tried to explain. When she died, we hadn’t been to see her in over a year. We’re still cut about it to this day, and ever more so as time passes.

Then there’s a shot of us with our first partner. We’d been lonely for so long and finally, they’d taken us on. They were very kind to us – and obviously pretty young and fragile themselves. They look lovely, somewhere on the coast, with their hair blown about by a breeze, and their arm around us. We rented a little cabin and went for walks along the marshes. We rented some bikes the day we left. But bitterness dogs us here too. After half a year or so, for reasons we still can’t really understand, we told them it was over – and did so rather horribly. We were too embarrassed to be kind. We hurt them badly through fear. From the evidence on the internet, they seem pretty happily married now. They must hate us a lot. Sometimes, late at night, we wish we could call them up and tell them (though it sounds a bit mad) that we still love them.

Then there’s a shot of us at university with a group of friends. It looks as though we’re having fun. There’s the guy whose name we can’t even remember who was always putting on funny accents and once almost crashed his mother’s car. There’s the gloomy clever physicist we loved talking to. But how little we made of those precious years. We should have been more honest about what we actually felt. We should have dared to be a genuine friend to the others. We should have spent that time figuring out what we could properly do with our careers. We should have taken a few more of the right sort of risks – but also been more focused and in a hurry.

We start to realise how much of life has been ruined by the fact that we had be there for it, that we soil everything we touch. Everything feels somewhat compromised, love making, travelling, working…. We realise that we want to live inside photographs, not the life they purport to tell us about.

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