Looking back: A year in review (more like a lifetime!)

People often take this time of year to look back at the previous 12 months and examine how life has changed.

New Year’s Day is a designated time for reflection, where we mark our current places in life while also looking ahead to the future, planning on how we would like to change ourselves or our life circumstances for the better. Granted, New Year’s doesn’t carry the same weight as Rosh Hashanah — the focus tends to be more on shrinking waistlines than on searching souls — but it is a marker nonetheless.

And it’s also fun. We celebrate the festivities with our silver top hats, goofy pipe-cleaner glasses, champagne, and confetti, listening to the top 100 hits of the year as we wait for the ball to drop from the top of the Empire State Building — all while there’s growing ruckus in Times Square and Ryan Seacrest joins in the countdown. Or, as is my tradition when New Year’s Eve falls out on Friday night, I drop an apple from the top of the stairs and watch it roll under the living room furniture.

But for me, this New Year’s feels remarkably different than those of the past. As the New Year approaches, I can’t help but look back at not only the past year, but at the past three decades, really. I might have started out this column with the words, “Oh, what a year it has been.” Yet as of late, my thoughts are closer to, “Oh, what a 30 years it has been.” The reason for this is simple, not at all unique.

It all boils down to reflecting on the passage of time.

For me, that means reflecting on fourth grade — where my ability to focus on reality kicked in — all the way up to the present day. No, I mean really. Fourth grade and down is completely covered in fog. Except for that one wonderful teacher who designated a block of time each day to sing songs with us while she played the accordion. It’s funny, the things we remember.

While I know that most people arrive at this point of reflection at one time or another — or, perhaps, many times as they age — it’s the first time I’ve arrived at this milestone. The passage of time is palpable.

I recently attended my 20-year high school reunion. Some describe those as a blast from the past — or something to avoid at all costs. Either way. For me, it felt like a time warp wherein my reality was distorted to the point of bordering on a parallel universe.

At these reunions, you see people who you recognize but who are different versions of those whom you remember. It’s flat-out weird. But it also feels like a slap in the face that’s telling you to “Wake up! Welcome to who you’ve become.” Some of the old cliques may form hives once again, but it’s clear that most people have evolved, have grown up, both literally and figuratively — and some in quite interesting ways. Then you find yourself realizing that — wait — you have evolved just as much.

For the most part, it was fun to see the roads upon which old classmates were traveling, both reunion attendees and those who were absent: The history buff who became a published author. The studious sweetheart who chose dentistry. The Mr. Nice Guy who became a nurse. The bright, smiling girl who became a halachic visionary. The interests, choices, and professions go on and on. Hedge funds, real estate, music industry, teaching, the rabbinate, law, the medical profession, nonprofits. The dozens who made aliyah.

Reaching back further, I recently saw a close friend from elementary school. We, too, revisited the past, as we sifted through our eighth-grade yearbook, page by page, trading memories that sparked memories and sharing stories that each of us were hearing for the first time. Soon thereafter, she and I encountered an odd case of synchronicity when former classmates started posting some old photos and memories of those early days on Facebook. (And oh, how I cringed at the sight of my young brace-faced self.)

All of this looking back at yearbook entries and remembering the aspirations of youth has been dangling in a place between overwhelming and eye-opening. This has not been my year in review. It’s closer to a life in review.

But as I said, I am by no means alone in this experience. It happens to most of us at one time or another, and sometimes many times at that.

There’s a related phrase, “Looking back through the rearview mirror.” But I don’t think that’s exactly what I mean by a life in review. I think it’s more like looking out the driver’s side mirror and combining it with the view of the person sitting to the right.

When we move forward on the proverbial road of our present and future, we’re only seeing half the picture, at most. Yet there’s another perspective. That’s the view of the person in the passenger seat — the fellow traveler riding shotgun. As a passenger, I might assess an old classmate as if he were the driver; I see his journey from my viewpoint. The basketball junkie turned lawyer. The jokester turned doctor. The surprises. The “of course they did…”

But on the flipside, in my former classmates’ minds, I am the driver. Just as I see them, they see me. It’s a shared experience, even if we haven’t seen one another in two decades: the places where we’re each going and the places from where we have come.

It’s natural to look back to the past, especially when celebrating milestones, like a 20-year high school reunion, or a forthcoming 25-year anniversary from elementary school. Certainly when you’re visiting with old friends. I imagine it would be draining to evaluate your entire past upon the arrival of each and every New Year.

But every now and then, sparingly, I would think, looking back can be quite liberating. Maybe I’ll revisit it all in another 30 years.

As for now, though, I’ll just enjoy the ride.

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at www.refaenu.org. You also can email dena@refaenu.org with any questions or comments.
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