Life can only be understood by looking backward

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that life can only be understood by looking backward, but it must be lived looking forward.

looking backward
The musings of Kierkegaard, by @tomgauld, New Scientist November 19, 2022

I agree!

Understanding by looking backward

In my 7th decade, I think I better understand some of the mysteries of my youth.


Paradoxically, one of the things I now understand better is the importance and influence of my feelings. Growing up, no one talked about feelings in my family. I got the message that feelings, especially uncomfortable ones, were taboo to discuss and best suppressed. So, I focused on understanding the world and my life by developing my rational understanding and knowledge of the world as a physicist. I had little understanding of how my feelings were influencing my life and decisions.

Over the years, I’ve realized that how I feel determines what I do far more than what I think. Though it’s still a struggle at times, I work to be more aware of how I’m feeling and how it is affecting my behavior. Doing this helps me to minimize being “stuck” in feelings that are associated with my recent or distant past. This leads to another understanding…

This too shall pass

These days, I find myself better able to deal with life’s ups and downs. I wouldn’t say my life feels easier overall. Increased financial security comes hand in hand with the infirmities of old(er) age. But over time I’ve internalized my understanding that “this too shall pass”.

Perhaps this is because I have more experience knowing that bad or good times don’t last forever. Perhaps I have become more resilient, or more accepting of the reality that some things are beyond my control. Or, maybe, it’s simply that my short-term memory is worse so it’s easier for me to live in the present!


As I age, I’ve become more tolerant of imperfections in myself, others, and the world. I am better able to forgive myself and others, having learned that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s not fair to hold anyone to impossibly high standards. I’m more empathetic, tolerant, and understanding than I used to be.

Many of the certainties of my youth have given way to respect for diverse opinions and a greater acceptance of imperfections in the world around us.

One specific example of this is forgiving the flaws and limitations of my parents, of whom I was so intolerant in my youth. I now see them as imperfect people rather than the all-knowing, all-powerful figures they appeared to me as a child. As a parent and grandparent myself now, I recognize the sacrifices and efforts they made on my behalf. I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for their love and support, despite their imperfections.

Everything else

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know compared to what there is to know. Paradoxically, I’m increasingly surprised by what I do know when circumstances bring it to mind. Most of my knowledge is tacit. Though my slowly deteriorating memory bugs me at times, I’m fundamentally at peace with remembering and understanding stuff that I used to know. Coming (mostly) to terms with my frailties as I age is a blessing.

Living looking forward

Until I die, there’s always the future—which hasn’t happened yet! I think the trick of experiencing the future as fully as possible is to work on minimizing the effects of past experiences that get in the way of being in the present. I’ll never completely succeed in this, of course, but it’s a worthy goal. Living looking forward is tough because…

…looking backward evokes feelings

Looking backward helps us to understand our past in ways that were previously hidden from us. In addition, thinking about the past often reinvokes feelings associated with that time. Sometimes this is a positive or healing experience. But sometimes it leads us to wallow in the past, stuck in unresolved trauma. That’s why looking backward with therapeutic support is often useful. It’s something I’ve done numerous times over the years which has paid rich dividends.

Living in the present

Here’s a final thought about living in the present by a meditation teacher:

“Let thoughts about the past be known for what they are: thoughts about the past. Let thoughts about the future be known for what they are: thoughts about the future.”

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