Yesterday afternoon I decided to attend daily mass a few blocks from my house, and then pick up some things for dinner at a nearby deli, where I used to shop as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. Monday happened to be the first day of classes, since the students all moved in this past weekend, and the relative quiet of the neighborhood around campus in summer is now broken once again. There were young people everywhere, some carrying bags full of shopping, others bumping into one another and asking, “How was your summer?”, others heading back from class, internships, or athletic practice.
As I walked about, I experienced this rather vivid sense of time travel which is a bit hard to describe. Perhaps the feeling was originally triggered by seeing a classmate of mine (whom I only knew slightly) on C-Span that morning, speaking on a panel discussion about the Republican National Convention, and remembering what she was like when she was about 19 years old. It wasn’t that I actually ran into someone I knew after mass, for although I still know a professor or two at Georgetown, almost everyone who would remember me there is long gone.
Rather, it was something like putting myself back into that time when I was a new Hoya. I still remember walking this particular route, on a Monday in August many years ago, as I made my way from campus down into the village for the first time. It isn’t as though I had never walked this route since: as a matter of fact I probably take it at least a couple of times a month, if I am going to patronize certain commercial establishments, or attend a lecture on campus, etc.
Instead, it was a certain combination of golden, late afternoon light, walking among these groups of students, that was a sort of journey beyond just that of heading home after church with some groceries. It was not just that click or flash, where you are suddenly reminded of something and then it fade, but rather quite a lengthy visitation or reverie, putting me in mind of people I had known and had not thought of in many years, whose names I have forgotten but who at one time if I saw them on the other side of Prospect Street I would have acknowledged, even if not necessarily stopped to talk to. Although I did not know the students around me, and they did not know me, there was a very strange sense that I could almost detail their lives…
And then of course, I realized that this is all rubbish.
Living in the past does no one any good – e.g., Miss Havisham. We all know people who fit the old stereotypes of people who cannot left go of the past. There are high school or college athletes for example, who got stuck in their own golden, afternoon light with the wet lawn beneath their feat, when they were young, handsome, and had a full head of hair. Decades later they are unhappy, and seem to resent life and themselves in equal measure. And this is simply one example among many.
Today the Church remembers the great St. Augustine, who spent the first part of his life having rather a good time carousing about. By his mid-30’s however, that attempt to simultaneously hold on to youthful excess underneath a veneer of adult respectability became impossible for him to maintain. He abandoned what he thought his life was supposed to be as a successful academic, and went down a completely different path. How fortunate for all of us that he took that later call he received in life, and ran with it, rather than remaining trapped in a kind of hedonistic time which would have become increasingly ridiculous and sad as he grew older.
We are all living in the age in which we were meant to born, which is a rather sobering thought. The question becomes what each of us will do with that inescapable fact, in the time we have each been given. There is nothing wrong with periodically looking back with some sense of nostalgia, nor looking to the future with longing. Yet if you spend most of your life doing these things, then you miss out on the opportunities you have before you today, here and now.
It was certainly an interesting experience I had yesterday afternoon, feeling as though I had returned to the past for several minutes, with my whole future in front of me just waiting to be defined. In the end, however, I was very glad to find that the feeling passed, with no real sense of regret or loss. There are too many things that need doing, for me to sit about and live in the past, and after all: if St. Augustine only started to figure out where his talents were really needed in his 30’s, then I am in most excellent company.
Aerial view of Georgetown on a summer late afternoon