Looking Forward to Looking Back

“Someday, we’ll look back at this and laugh.”

This expression is reserved for people who, because they are suffering some awful physical or social pain, can find no reason to laugh right now. They have either blundered into made a costly mistake, collided with an avoidable obstacle, or stumbled into a social faux-pas. Yet, they are convinced that in a foreseeable future, their recollection of the moment will allow them a comic interlude.

They are right, of course. The passage of time has a remarkable ability to craft a favourable subjective recollection from an adverse objective reality. It does so through cognitive processes so effective and reliable that, even in the depths of our suffering, we can already anticipate the moment we’ll be able to look back and laugh.

Adaptation – Even if the pain or embarrassment persists, it is never as agonising as it was in the very first moment because we get used to it. The most distress comes from the initial change, from the pain-free to the painful condition. If the adverse stimulus is maintained, though, the pain-free condition is gradually forgotten, and discomfort becomes the norm. Indeed, once we have fully adapted, we will even perceive a milder level of discomfort or embarrassment as a win.

Dissonance – Clumsy. Imprudent. Absent-minded. Any one of these sins might provide the best explanation for our predicament. The problem is that we do not like to ascribe them to ourselves. So, when things go wrong a process kicks in whose goal is to preserve our self-image. We are motivated to find ways to see the situation in a better light, or to justify having taken the calamitous path in the first place.

Attribution – Hand-in-hand with dissonance, this process will find ways to apportion blame for the undesirable outcome away from ourselves. When bad things happen, it very often tends to be the fault of the unpredictable environment, or the flawed actions of others.

Learning from the past?

If what we remember is nothing more than a self-serving version of the past, a question arises: which version will we learn from – the objective or the subjective? Some might argue that we will never learn from our mistakes if we no longer perceive them as errors, if we always blame someone else, or if we convince ourselves that the ‘error’ was the outcome we wanted all along. The consequence of this is that we might blunder through life, slapdash and shoddy, with little regard for real-world outcomes. Given that it is objective reality that shapes the world, we ought to learn from objective feedback, not from our subjective recollections of it.

The counterargument, though, is perhaps more convincing. What finally matters for our well-being is our interpretation of events, not what really happened. These processes are therefore beneficial for our overall wellbeing, and those so-called ‘errors’ are potentially the sources of our future entertainment? Furthermore, if we recalled every painful episode in our lives in excruciating high-definition, mightn’t we be too terrified to take risks in the future? Given that we all seem able to look forward to looking back, and we are evolution’s survivors, the trade-off seems to have been worth it.

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